By Tammy Webber
CHICAGO, Ill. (AP) – Matt von Konrat is animated as he talks about a plant specimen pulled from the vast botanical collection at the Field Museum of Natural History. Documentation shows it was collected in 1996 in a Colombian rainforest and tested for compounds that might be used to treat HIV, AIDS or cancer.
“Imagine if you made some amazing drug discovery,” von Konrat says, sweeping an arm toward cabinets holding some of his department’s more than 3 million specimens, including ones collected by famed navigator Capt. James Cook in the 1770s. “You would know exactly where (the plant) came from and its exact identity” so you could find it again.
Best known for impressive public displays such as Sue, the towering Tyrannosaurus rex that greets visitors in the lobby of its Lake Michigan campus, the Field Museum’s larger mission always has been behind-the-scenes research on its 25 million-piece – and growing – collection of birds, mammals, fish, plants, fossils and artifacts. Field scientists travel the globe to retrieve specimens that could produce medicines, document the effects of climate change or explain the secrets of genetics.
But the 120-year-old museum, founded during the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition and named for department store magnate Marshall Field, now is setting the scientific world abuzz for another reason.
Faced with almost $170 million in debt, the museum is cutting next year’s research budget 20 percent by shrinking its science staff and merging departments. While natural history museums across the U.S. are under pressure to stay relevant to the public, the Field stands out for its financial woes, experts say, and for speculation over whether the problems will affect its future as a pre-eminent research center.
“It’s one of the great natural history museums of the world and has been for very long time … but it’s on the verge of not being so important,” said Michael Donohue, curator of the botany department at Yale University’s Peabody Museum.1 2 next >>