Category Archives: Field Museum of Natural History

Please Touch, Look-But-Don’t-Touch, and Interactivity in Science Museums

A couple of weeks ago in a very public admittance of failure, Philadelphia’s Please Touch Museum filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Although anonymous donors rallied together $1.25 million in an effort to save the museum within just a few days, museum professionals—as well as Philadelphia families—are left questioning what it means to run a successful children’s science museum…and what it takes to keep doors open.

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The Field Museum Cuts Basic Research

Karl Akeley’s famous “Fighting African Elephants” being put on display at the Field Museum in Chicago, ~1905.

The Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago is one of the country’s oldest, largest, and most respected institutions of its kind. It has played a leading role in the global effort to collect, study, and exhibit remnants of our world’s biodiversity for over a century, but it looks as though this legacy may be nearing its end. According to articles in Nature and the Chicago Tribune, the museum’s administration recently announced that it would cut spending on basic research by $3 million to help meet its goal of reducing the overall budget by some $5 million next year. Among other things, this decision will almost certainly require breaking tenure to lay off curators.

Last Tuesday, the museum’s new president and CEO, Richard Lariviere, announced that all of its academic departments–Geology, Zoology, Anthropology, and Botany–would be eliminated as part of an effort to streamline its organizational structure. As of January the 1st, they will be replaced by a single department for Science and Education.

There are a few reasons I have decided to write about this development, which is extremely unsettling to say the least. One of them is that I have many fond memories of visiting the museum over the years (my father works there as a curator), and I share the sadness and frustration that many have voiced in the wake of this news. Whereas Lariviere reportedly told the Tribune that “if we wrestle these issues to the ground successfully, our future is rosy,” others have been less sanguine in their views. James Hanken, the Director of Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zooology, for example, told Nature that “There’s no way the Field Museum will be able to maintain its position of prominence under those circumstances.”

So I urge readers who agree that cutting basic research is a shortsighted move to sign this online petition urging Lariviere and other museum administrators to rethink their fiscal strategy.

But there’s a second, somewhat less personal reason I wanted to write about these developments. As a historian of science, I have spent quite a lot of time wondering why American civic natural history museums have a research mission in the first place. The best answer that I have come up with centers on the fact that these institutions required the financial support of wealthy philanthropists to get started during the late 19th century. (The Field Museum, which is named after Marshall Field, a department store magnate who contributed a million dollars to its founding during the 1890s, is a case in point.) Entrepreneurs, financiers, and industrialists had many reasons to support the creation of a museum (or a park, concert hall, library, etc.), but one of the most interesting is that doing so helped to legitimize their wealth, power, and social standing. Adopting some terminology from the French anthropologist Pierre Bourdieu, we might say that investing in the collection of natural history specimens was one way to convert economic wealth into cultural capital.

Inscription above the Field Museum’s main entrance.

Since most of these institutions were founded at a time of considerable labor unrest, their underwriters were keen to attract a large and diverse audience that included working class families. To do that, the exhibits had to be exciting and visually stimulating. But they were also supposed to instill bourgeois values and help legitimize a particularly ruthless and competitive mode of production, one which gave rise to increased social inequality. The decision to begin hiring curators and investing in basic research was, thus, among other things, an attempt to lend credibility and authority to popularizations of a particularly self-serving vision of the natural world.

Here, I have been deliberate in my attempts to put the argument in its starkest, most Marxian terms. In actual fact, the modern, civic museum–institutions that combine scientific research with popular entertainment and public instruction–are far more than a public relations campaign for the capitalist mode of production. For example, their creation during the Gilded Age was not just the activity of one social group. Rather, it required forging an alliance between private capital, municipal government, practicing naturalists, and a willing (though not yet paying) public. So I’d just like to signal that there is a lot here that’s been left unsaid.

Still, I do basically subscribe to the kind of narrative I’ve tried to outline above. At the same time, now that the Field Museum’s research mission is under serious threat, I feel an immense sadness, grief, and sense of loss. Why should this be so? If creating a research mission was just a way to make museums a better shill for capitalism, why would removing it be such a bad thing?

The answer obviously has a lot to do with all those other dimensions of the history that I’ve left out. But rather than actually start sketching out such an answer (a task that would require its own post), let me just close by reflecting on the question itself.

Events such as those with which I’ve started this post are useful reminders to us as practicing historians in that they provide some perspective on our work. We often talk about the need to gain a sense of critical distance from our subject matter. I think that’s certainly true. But we should not forget that sometimes we also need exactly the opposite. Too much critical distance turns history into a mere parlor game. But when we are threatened with the tangible loss of something we love (or the creation of something that we abhor), its history takes on a fuller, richer, and more important meaning.

I do not want to give the impression that I advocate giving up on critique. As an historian, I am fundamentally committed to the critical enterprise. But I do want to suggest that critique for its own sake is not just shallow but potentially dangerous.  If it is not directed at a tangible goal, it can lull us into the false sense that we can do what is right without getting our hands dirty.