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Field Museum bosses on a mission to discover: Why are we here?

Field Museum President Richard Lariviere took over institutilast August. |  Andrew A. Nelles~Sun-Times Media

Field Museum President Richard Lariviere took over the institution last August. | Andrew A. Nelles~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: January 20, 2013 6:20AM

In an institution built around research, Field Museum leaders now are taking on the most critical question of all: Why are we here?

After nearly three months on the job, Field President Richard Lariviere said Tuesday he and the board are launching a major examination of the Field’s mission and purpose and will realign the museum as needed once the study is completed. The study could result in a signficant scaling back of a prominent Chicago museum.

“Everything is on the table,” Lariviere said, including potential staff cuts, changes to long-standing exhibits and the nature of research relationships with local universities.

“The iconic status of the museum is undeniable in the city,” he said.

But when asked why that is, people in and out of the museum have trouble articulating a clear answer, he said.

The museum is a repository for millions of specimens, less than 1 percent of which are on display at any given time. Lariviere thinks these items might hold priceless clues to fighting climate change and reversing environmental degradation, but they also come at tremendous costs for maintenance and storage.

The vast, largely unseen collections aren’t a natural fit for fund-raising, and the museum needs funds to operate. This year, the museum is running at a deficit of about $5 million in its $70 million operating fund, he said.

“We can’t continue to do everything that the museum has done in the past,” he said. “We have to establish priorities around the collection.”

The study, which staff will participate in, is expected to conclude July 1. At that point, museum officials plan to launch a capital campaign to shore up the approximately $292 million endowment by an additional $100 million.

At this point, it’s unclear how any changes would affect visitors’ experience at the museum. Lariviere said he hopes there will be “significant” change, particularly by incorporating technology and context into the exhibits.

John W. Rowe, the Field’s board chairman, said the board was “absolutely unified” that the museum needs to refocus.

“We have no choice but to do this,” he said, adding that flat revenues and attendance are common challenges at many museums.

The Lincoln Park Zoo, Brookfield Zoo and Shedd Aquarium are the only three of the 14 “Museums in the Park” institutions that regularly draw more than 2 million in attendance. The Field Museum has pulled in those big numbers, but that’s typically in a year when the museum hosts a blockbuster exhibit, such as 2006’s King Tut exhibit which helped bring 2.13 million into the museum. In 2012, the Field drew nearly 1.3 million visitors, slightly less than the Museum of Science and Industry and the Art Institute of Chicago.

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