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Editorial: The Field Museum: a treasure, a responsibility

The Field Museum Chicago Ill. Tuesday December 18 2012. | Andrew A. Nelles~Sun-Times Media

The Field Museum in Chicago, Ill., on Tuesday, December 18, 2012. | Andrew A. Nelles~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: January 25, 2013 6:12AM



Like so many institutions in a down economy, the Field Museum of Natural History is caught in a budget squeeze.

But trimming its costs isn’t all that easy. The museum’s 25 million specimens — carefully preserved in climate-controlled environments — add up to one of the world’s most valuable research repositories, one that’s both irreplaceable and expensive to maintain.

New Field President and Chief Executive Officer Richard Lariviere tells the story of how scientists learned that the insecticide DDT was driving the bald eagle, the peregrine falcon and other avian species to extinction. By studying old falcon egg shells in the Field’s collection, researchers saw how the shells grew thin once DDT was released into the environment. DDT was eventually banned, and the birds recovered.

“That kind of thing happens at the museum all the time,” Lariviere said.

The extensive collection doesn’t just give Chicago bragging rights. It’s also a responsibility. Finding answers to questions about climate change, environmental degradation and loss of habitats may rely on the museum’s vast collection, one that can never be rebuilt from scratch.

Last week, the museum announced it would trim $5 million from its operational budget, reshape its organization, try to raise $100 million for its endowment and other measures. We’ll be watching to see what they come up with.

Part of the problem is that there aren’t as many wealthy people from whom a museum can raise $100 million every few years, said Field board member Marshall Field.

Also, raising money to preserve specimens kept largely out of public view is “a hard idea to sell,” Lariviere said. “We are really dependent on the public’s willingness to help us preserve this.”

Most of us can’t write big checks, but we can visit, join as members or help in other ways.

A researcher who needs to study ants collected from Guatemala in 1958 may someday thank us.



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