DAVID GREENE, HOST:
The U. S. economy is showing some signs of a rebound but many cultural institutions around the country are not feeling that way. They are still struggling to regain their financial footing. That's especially true for Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History. It is internationally known for both its research and its exhibits.
But as NPR's Cheryl Corley reports, the Field Museum is having to make some difficult and controversial choices as it tries to payoff millions of dollars in debt.
CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: The first thing you see when you enter the main hall of the Field Museum is Sue the largest T-Rex specimen around.
JAN LARIVIERE: A woman fossil hunter found her, Sue Hendrickson. And Sue and her dog were out fossil hunting and they saw the backbone sticking out of a ridge in South Dakota.
CORLEY: A crowd gathers around docent Jan Lariviere as she talks about the world's most complete T-Rex fossil found.
LARIVIERE: She was 28 when she died.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Twenty-eight?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Twenty-eight?
LARIVIERE: It. We don't know if it's a girl or a boy, it was 28 when it died.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Oh.
CORLEY: The Field Museum's encyclopedic collections range from dinosaur skeletons to taxidermy exhibits, which include the infamous man-eating Lions of Tsavo that terrorized a railroad camp in Kenya over a century ago. In all, there are more than 20 million biological and geological specimens and cultural objects but only a small portion are ever on display. In 2002, the museum board approved issuing bonds to add an underground collections center and to update other areas of the Field's ornate neoclassical building.
Joanna Woronkowicz, a research associate at the University of Chicago's Cultural Policy Center, says back then other institutions were doing the same thing.
JOANNA WORONKOWICZ: Before the economic decline, for the arts and cultural field, it was a time at which it felt like you could do anything. You could plan a multimillion dollar project and there wasn't a substantial risk of having to suffer any major consequences.
CORLEY: Then the stock market tanked and the Field's endowment took a hit, says Richard Lariviere, docent Jan Lariviere's husband. He also happens to be the Museum's CEO.
RICHARD LARIVIERE: If you think you've got to cross the street to get to the restaurant on the other side and you get run over by a car, you think: Why did I every want to go to that restaurant.
LARIVIERE: And we've been hit by a car like every other institution.
CORLEY: The Field had predicted big increases in attendance - that didn't happen. And it fell short of its fundraising goals. There have been layoffs and other cost cutting but the museum's budget is still $5 million in the red. And a good chunk of the budget is slated to pay off its bond debt.
LARIVIERE: And at that time those bonds were issued, all the smart people were doing that. And no one could have anticipated what would happen in 2002 and then again in 2008.
CORLEY: Lariviere inherited the problems. He became CEO late last year. By then the Field had auctioned off some of its collections. The sale included 30 paintings by George Catlin, a celebrated 19th century painter of American Indians and the Old West. Lariviere said curators had determined the paintings weren't essential to the Field's research mission, and the focus of the institution had shifted.
LARIVIERE: Such that to keep items that you're no longer actively curating is really to diminish their potential value to the public to the scientific world, et cetera.
CORLEY: Later, the museum sold the rest of its Catlin paintings and earmarked the proceeds, more than 15 million, to pay for certain staff salaries and for buying artifacts. Selling off items in a permanent collection or de-accessioning, as it's called in the museum world, is fairly common. But there are generally accepted guidelines among curators as to what you can do with that money.
BURT LOGAN: And in no event should those proceeds be used for anything other than acquisition or direct care of collections.
CORLEY: That's Burt Logan with the American Alliance of Museums. The Field's Lariviere says the museum followed those guidelines. And will do so again if it needs to sell off anything else.
LARIVIERE: It's not the sort of thing where we would say, well, we need another $100 thousand to balance our budget this year, so let's sell this box of ants.
CORLEY: The problem is that box of ants could have been part of a prized collection bequeathed to the museum with the expectation it would stay there forever. And that says Carroll Joynes, co-founder of the University of Chicago's Cultural Policy Center, is what makes de-accessioning so tricky.
CARROLL JOYNES: Because it makes donors in the future fear for the security of the things they leave to the organization, if say they leave a significant collection. And seems to many to skirt with a breaking of a trust, or a vow to take these things into permanent protection for future generations.
CORLEY: The Field Museum isn't just a repository of stuff though. Its research operation is world renowned. CEO Lariviere says the study of its collection of Peregrine Falcon egg shells, for example, helped ban the widespread use of the insecticide DDT. Now, as one of the country's premier cultural organizations works to climb out of its financial hole, it faces the imminent loss of curators and scientists who have less than two weeks to decide whether to accept early retirement packages.
Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.