Nature museums nearly relics themselves

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.

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.


The museum’s public face is simple enough to comprehend -- the main building in Exposition Park, with its dioramas, dinosaur fossils and a darkened gem and mineral hall that glows like Aladdin’s cave; and the George C. Page Museum on Wilshire Boulevard, showcasing extinct prehistoric mammals whose bones were dug from the ooze of the neighboring La Brea tar pits. Together, they draw 800,000 to 900,000 visitors a year; about a third are groups of children from public schools that get in free.

The harder part to explain happens on the third floor of the Exposition Park building. It’s where most of the curators are -- PhD scientists trained to go out in the world, find critters, critter remains and anthropological artifacts and bring them back as specimens. The 33-million-piece collection is not shelved and forgotten but requires ongoing care.

“Collections are expensive to keep and are not revenue-generating,” said the museum’s Regina Wetzer, who studies tiny, bug-like crustaceans.

Joel Martin, the crustaceans curator, who has been at the museum nearly 20 years, worries that with every cutback, the chances to win grants worsen. Ambitious research often depends on scientists being able to win highly competitive grants from outside sources.

“They’re not likely to put a lot of money into an institution that itself is not funding it,” he said.

In the three years before 2003, the L.A. museum landed $2.4 million from the National Science Foundation. In the three years since, L.A.’s share dropped to $1.6 million.


The austerity measures also snuffed what some saw as a promising youth movement that had begun in 2001, when four young biologists and three researchers specializing in the history, anthropology and archeology of the American West and Mexico were hired as curators. “It created a lot of energy,” recalled one former curator, who asked not to be named for fear of alienating colleagues. “Research and collections was on the upswing, and the sky was the limit.”

Now, just one of the seven remains. Kenneth Johnson, who studies coral reefs, went to the Natural History Museum in London; he noted dryly that it becomes easier to find opportunities when wages have been frozen.

The L.A. museum has 20 budgeted curatorial positions, down from 24 in 2000, and only 16 are occupied or being filled. The American Museum in New York has 42 curators, up from 39 in 2000.

Cutting curators was “like ‘Sophie’s Choice,’ ” said President Jane Pisano, but the museum couldn’t keep outspending its income. This year’s budget is about $26 million, with the county providing 45% of the funds.

Even with the cuts, about 24% of the natural history museum’s spending goes to research and collections. Pisano noted that exhibits, education and other public programs got 23% combined. “Clearly, we need research,” she said. “It lets us say, ‘We create knowledge here.’ It grounds our work.”

There’s nothing specifically for research, however, in the $115-million construction campaign. It addresses what the public sees: refurbishing the 1913 rotunda building and creating six galleries, including a near-doubling of the space for dinosaurs.


Experts even worry that the very name “natural history museum” has a Victorian tinge that makes it harder to compete for audiences and funding.

“It harks back 300 years and doesn’t resonate anymore,” said Krishtalka, the University of Kansas museum director who reclassified his venue as a “biodiversity institute.” The challenge and potential salvation, he believes, lie in making visitors and donors understand the connection between the fate of the Earth and all those seemingly inert specimens tucked into drawers or arrayed on back-room shelves in jars of alcohol.

“Our collections and knowledge help inform solutions to the problems the planet’s facing,” Krishtalka said. “Our time is now, and museums that reach out and grab that mission strongly will be the ones who survive.”

A completely rebuilt California Academy of Sciences is due to open next year in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. The museum, which will have a “living roof” of greenery designed by Renzo Piano, could be the canary in the coal mine. If a leading institution that has had a chance to reinvent itself with almost half a billion dollars can’t score a hit, the future for all natural history museums could be a real dodo.

Driving the project, for which about $385 million in mostly private donations has been raised, was the realization that people had become bored with natural history museums, said curator John Patrick Kociolek, the former executive director who spearheaded the rebuilding. “Before you’d go, you could write down what you were going to see. The same stories were being told.”

The new museum, he said, aims to stay fresh by uniting its public face with its hidden brain, clearly linking research to what visitors see by basing exhibits on the work of the museum’s scientists.


For that to succeed, Kociolek said, there has to be a better exchange of ideas within the museum.

That’s why Piano was asked to design hallways, office wings and other staff areas so that formerly “siloed” scientists would mingle routinely with colleagues in other departments.

Terry Yates, president of the National Science Collections Alliance, hopes environmental consciousness and civic competitiveness will light a spark among L.A.’s philanthropists, who never have supported the city’s museum of natural history on a scale approaching their counterparts in New York, Chicago and San Francisco.

The museum, Yates said, “continues to be a vital force on the West Coast, but it’s facing problems. Do you want New York to continue to show up L.A.? Come on, guys, get going.”