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Nature museums nearly relics themselves

June 03, 2007|Mike Boehm | Times Staff Writer

The great American natural history museum could be headed for the vulnerable species list, alongside the polar bear and the redwood tree.

A national survey last year showed nature museums' annual bottom lines sinking chronically into the red by $300,000 on average, while art museums outperformed them by nearly half a million dollars. Some of the leading institutions have winnowed their staffs since the decade began, among them the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

Science leaders worry that financial pressures and demands to boost attendance could prompt natural history museums to self-lobotomize, cutting away brain matter -- the pure scientific research that's largely hidden from the public -- to save the exhibits and educational programs that are the institutions' visible cash generators.

Research is what makes natural history museums special: the mandate to venture into nature and bring back new finds and fresh questions, while maintaining millions of specimens.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday June 05, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
Natural history museums: A caption with an article in Sunday's Section A about the financial pressures faced by natural history museums misspelled curatorial assistant Neftali Camacho's first name as Nestali.

Some scientists say that amid global warming and a rapid die-off of species, these collections encompassing the world's life forms, living and extinct, have become especially valuable for the clues they might hold.

How have creatures through the eons adapted or failed as their environments have changed? What's happening now? Biologists say those questions are vital in coping with today's challenges, and they can't be answered fully without museum collections.

"With some major exceptions, there's been a 20-year retraction" in museum-based natural history research, said Leonard Krishtalka, who directs the museum at the University of Kansas. "We're slowly witnessing, by the whittling of curatorial positions, the extinction of incredible knowledge. For many organisms there are only one or two world experts, and they retire with no one to replace them."

Officials with the American Assn. of Museums, which conducted the 2006 survey that tags natural history as an underperforming sector, cautioned against drawing strong statistical conclusions, because the report was based on median results from 43 institutions over three years, compared with 197 art museums. But there's no shortage of anecdotal woe.

The Milwaukee Public Museum lies fiscally prostrate, its net assets having fallen to minus-$14 million last year, according to its 2006 tax return. The Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, the deficit-ridden, 195-year-old granddaddy of American natural history museums, sold some of the family jewels to prop up its finances last year, earning $1 million for a chunk of its mineral collection.

The Smithsonian Institution's natural history museum in Washington, D.C., which draws more than 5 million visitors a year and has the nation's largest collection, with more than 126 million specimens, is seen as deeply troubled; the staff has shrunk almost a third since 2000.

"It's a real concern to see continued diminishing ranks of scientists there," said Robert Gropp, director of public policy for the American Institute of Biological Sciences. "We hear routinely from folks who work there that morale is really down."

Even the American Museum of Natural History in New York, which stands with the Smithsonian and the Field Museum in Chicago as the Big Three of natural history exhibits and research, has had to economize. The museum has reduced its staff about 11% this decade, although curators were untouched, spokesman Steve Reichl said.

Universities aren't a strong alternative, scientists say, because many have given up their expensive-to-maintain natural history collections and focused their efforts elsewhere, including biomedical research, genetics and technology.

The L.A. museum, which vies with San Francisco's California Academy of Sciences for fourth place in national rankings, turned to shock therapy in 2003, laying off 7% of its staff to save $2 million and reverse a long string of deficits. Most remaining employees endured a wage freeze that ended this year.

The museum's scientists have been studying things like parasitical bee-killing Peruvian flies, or attempting to sort out the evolution and global distribution of gobioids, small ocean fish important to the diet of the seafood humans eat. How can such research fit into what investment company executive Paul Haaga Jr., president of the museum's board, calls "the elevator speech" -- the pithy hook, deliverable in the course of an elevator ride, that's needed to recruit donors? And finding big donors is more crucial than ever for an institution that's revving up a $115-million fundraising campaign.

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