As reported by multiple news organizations, Chicago’s Field Museum faces major budget problems; cuts are anticipated to scientific staff and research. While most reports advocate for maintaining science at The Field Museum, many display lack of understanding of the importance of the Museum’s scientific research and collections.
For example, one editorial that urged supporting the Field concluded by saying, “A researcher who needs to study ants collected from Guatemala in 1958 may someday thank us.” This rather flippant sentence suggests a limited grasp of the significance of the Museum’s extensive collections.
The Field Museum’s collections include anthropological artifacts, animals, plants, and fossils from multiple locations across the Earth and many points in time. Less than 0.1% of the Museum’s 25 million specimens are displayed to the public. Most are safeguarded behind the scenes—but not idle. They’re active research collections, used by scientists at the Museum and around the world. In addition to researchers, scientifically educated staff is required to care for and manage collections properly.
The scientific value of The Field’s broad collections is incalculable. For instance, in the early 1960s, Peregrine Falcons declined catastrophically in North America and Europe. The bird egg collection at Field Museum helped provide an important clue as to why. When eggs from failed nests were compared with those from Field’s egg collection, researchers found that the former had much thinner, more easily broken shells than eggs collected from earlier time periods. Additional research linked thin egg shells to the pesticide DDT. But the path to this answer began with museum scientists making observations using collection specimens.
Collections spanning multiple times and places lay the groundwork to tackle unanticipated questions that address contemporary issues and illuminate our cultural and natural history. When many of Field Museum’s specimens were collected, DNA analytic techniques hadn’t yet been developed. But now the Museum has an active DNA lab (which is on display to the public) that uses collections for DNA-sequencing studies not imagined a few decades ago.
Something else that many people don’t realize is that The Field Museum has PhD scientists on staff whose training and research match those of university professors. In fact, many Field Museum scientists serve as adjunct faculty at Chicago-area universities. The Field’s researchers engage in scientific studies using both the Museum’s collections and international field sites. They publish results in prominent journals, and the Museum publishes its own scholarly journal, Fieldiana. In the United States, the Field’s research and collections are rivaled only by the American Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian.
Research and collections also underpin the Museum’s public offerings. One or more scientific staff members typically act as content experts on public program teams. Their participation lends authority to exhibitions and educational programs, assuring that public communication efforts are crafted with the most up-to-date scientific information and expertise.
The Field’s new president, Richard Lariviere, has inherited an untenable financial situation—one not of his own making. His options, and those of his new management team, are limited and disagreeable. Many people in Chicago, and around the world, wish them well in finding solutions that will not weaken The Field Museum’s foundation: its research and collections.