The Field Museum of Natural History recently announced that it is cutting its budget by 7%—$5 million from its overall budget of ~$70 million—with $3 million of this coming out of the science departments.The museum has begun a process that would allow it to layoff even tenured researchers. You could have knocked me over with a feather when I read that. A week before, if asked, I would have named the Field as one of a small handful of natural history museums likely to make collections and research a priority no matter what. This week’s guest post is by Chris Norris, president of the Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections and Senior Collections Manager at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, who kindly accepted my invitation to speculate about what this portends for the future of museums.
What is it that museums do? I’m sure if you asked fifteen or twenty people from different parts of the profession you’d get fifteen or twenty different answers, or possibly more (since by nature we museum types tend to prevaricate when confronted by a straightforward question). You could say that museums educate, inform, interpret, entertain, enable, research, document, collect, or preserve and all of these things would be true. We’re fortunate enough to work for multi-faceted institutions and this is what drew many of us to a museum career in the first place.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t take much imagination to envisage a future in which this is not the case. In fact, for many museums, that future is already here. We’re living a new age of austerity, at least in the western world, where we can no longer be all that we want to be. Instead, we’re asked to choose what we have to be, because there’s no money to pay for anything else.
If we’re funded from the public purse, then the tendency is to look outwards for guidance. If money is tight, then we have to justify our existence in terms of the service that we provide to taxpayers. How do we best serve those who pay for us? How do we avoid the accusation that we are milking hard-up citizens to support ivory-tower academic elitism of the worst sort?
If you use this rationale, then it seems obvious that what we should do is pump our limited funds into outreach. We need to make our museums into genuinely public spaces, where we engage with our communities in novel and exciting ways. We need to support an already overstretched public education system, providing a different, but complementary educational experience that extends beyond the classroom to encompass all aspects of life-long learning. We should work to make museums a more open and inviting space by branching out into novel areas – retail, catering, or performing arts. We need to leave the paying public in no doubt of our wider relevance to society as a whole.
Actually, I don’t agree with this. I think we need to look after our collections.
Collections are not very fashionable at the moment. A quick scan through the museum literature suggests that they are more problem than solution; unsustainable, unfocused, imperialistic, and irrelevant. Collections storage facilities are unrepentant energy hogs, whose HVAC units guzzle fuel in pursuit of unsustainable conservation standards. Many of the objects in the collections will never be seen or touched by anyone other than collections staff. There is a strong suspicion that they lack fitness for any purpose, and that some of them may have been removed from their countries of origin in questionable circumstances.
So, all things considered, wouldn’t it be better if we applied a little focus to our collections? Cut back on esoteric curatorial research, disperse “non-core” material through deaccession and disposal, and concentrate more on use than preservation? Maybe. Focus and relevance are good. Access and use are critical. But these are things that, if done properly, will cost more money rather than less. These are all aspects of curation.
Curation is what museums do. Our collections are our unique proposition – the one thing that we have that no other institution possesses. Everything that we do in museums, if done well, flows from collections – education, exhibition, scholarship, and entertainment. They give us a relevance and authenticity that is one of our most valued resources. Our reputation depends to a large extent on the quality of the material that we hold in trust for the public. The ability of the public to access and benefit from these collections, which are their collections, not ours, is dependent on our continuing to invest in collections care.
By now, you may be thinking that this is a rather retrograde post for a blog on the future of museums, but this is an argument about how we see the future of museums and it’s one that we need to have now. Curatorial and collections expertise is a fragile enterprise. It requires significant, long-term investment to build. Museums have beeninvesting in it for decades, through war and peace, boom and bust. No amount of automation, remote access, and crowd-sourcing can replace it. And yet, as we diversify and innovate, and try our best to be all that we can be, it is being placed at risk.
One of the saddest aspects of the first six months of my tenure as President for the Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections has been the number of letters that I have to write to directors and trustees of museums pleading that they do not cut staff, remove support, or deaccession collections. The responses that I get are articulate and well-argued and depressingly similar; money is tight, we can’t do everything, we have a responsibility to our stakeholders, et cetera.
To which I say, yes, this is an issue of responsibility. Your responsibility is not to plug holes in the public education system, fix your broken communities, or provide your visitors with a better soy latte. Your responsibility, placed on you by the people that pay your wages, is to exercise responsible stewardship of the collections in your care. Nothing trumps this. The most likely future that I see for museums that neglect that duty is that in 50 years time their collections will be unusable for a lack of basic curatorial care. I don’t think that serves the needs of today’s public, and it certainly will not serve the needs of their grandchildren.
I wish I could build the FMNH equivalent of the game Budget Hero, which invites citizens to make their own hard choices to balance the Federal budget, Short of that, I invite you to read about FMNH’s budget strategies and then weigh in below. Faced with the need to trim the budget and grow income, what choices would you make?