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Report Praises Natural History Museum, Recommends Changes

March 22, 1995|CARLA RIVERA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A preliminary report on operations at the beleaguered Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County generally lauds the museum's collections and research as top flight, but also warns that the facility is severely underfunded and recommends substantial changes in how the institution is governed.

Prepared by a task force of the county's Citizens Economy and Efficiency Commission with the help of an outside consultant, the report was more than eight months in the making.

It includes 37 recommendations that cover a broad range of museum activities, including improving operations and management techniques, reducing county costs and increasing revenue possibilities.

Among the major suggestions are that the two boards that govern the museum be merged, that more innovative funding ideas be found to help meet budget needs, and that over the next 20 years, the museum become a privately run institution.

Museum officials, who cooperated with the commission, said they were generally pleased with the report and would work to implement many of the recommendations.

"I find on balance the report very useful and will certainly take it quite seriously," said museum Director James L. Powell. "The general tenor of the report is that we have a world-class museum without world-class funding."

The museum is ranked among the top five of its kind in the nation, with a budget exceeding $22 million annually. Its 9 million-specimen collection is topped only by the Smithsonian Institution, New York's American Museum of Natural History and the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago.

However, the report found that the museum's current $35-million endowment lags far behind those of other top-rate institutions, which average around $120 million. The report recommends an aggressive investment policy to increase the endowment substantially within nine months.

Among the findings of the report, drafted with the help of consultant George M. Davis, a director at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, is that the collections at the museum are "among the best curated and cared for in the world."

But it notes that "increased attention is required to improve the governance" of the museum.

"I'm very much supportive of the recommendations and particularly happy Mr. Powell is in tune," said Gunther W. Buerk, chairman of the Economy and Efficiency Commission. "I think at the end of the process it will be a better and more efficient museum."

Major recommendations include:

Developing a more effective policy to improve communications between museum management and staff; implementing a policy to charge all non-members for use of collection resources; consolidating collections now spread out over four warehouses into one storage facility to save money; expanding the licensing of reproductions of museum artifacts for sale; creating specialized and "behind the scenes" tours of museum facilities to raise money, and asking educational institutions to help fund programs.

The assessment stems from a decision by the Board of Supervisors to consider whether the vast collections at the museum might be sold off to save the county money in maintaining and storing them.

The conclusion that the museum is generally doing a good job of meeting its mission comes as a spot of bright news after recent years of internal strife and severe budget problems.

Earlier last month, operations came under harsh scrutiny when investigators with the district attorney's office served search warrants at the museum and its affiliate, the George C. Page Museum, as part of an investigation into possible financial irregularities. Chief Deputy Director Mark A. Rodriguez, who was in charge of running the Page, was placed on "non-disciplinary" administrative leave pending the outcome of the inquiry.

Retired former Director Craig C. Black's tenure was tainted by personnel problems and allegations of questionable management practices.

Both Black and Rodriguez were subjects of a previous investigation by the district attorney's office, which resulted in no criminal charges being filed.

A 1993 report prepared by the auditor-controller's office found that museum managers had violated Civil Service rules while laying off employees and failed to maintain an adequate inventory of the museum's collections.

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