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NPR Story on the Field Museum’s Financial Crisis Incites Sharp Comments from Listeners

The Field Museum is encyclopedic, with more than 20 million biological and
geological specimens and cultural objects.
On May 6th, NPR’s Morning Edition aired a feature on the Field Museum in Chicago.  The report is hackneyed, fitting into the genre of the modern American museum tale.  After cutting costs and staff layoffs, the museum is still $5 million in the red this year–with most of its budget for next year allocated to pay bond debt.  Last year the museum sold a large collection of George Catlin paintings for $15 million to pay for “certain staff salaries and for buying artifacts.”

The highlight of the report was not the story in itself, but rather, the response it garnered from the public on the NPR website.  The comments and the passion with which they were posted reveals the public’s views on museum struggles.  The discussion exposes that the troubles at the Field Museum (and any museum), are perceived through a kaleidoscope that includes the woes of Wall Street, the divergent extremes of politics, urbanization and suburbanization, the wealth gap and the growing baby boom generation.

The Field Museum sold some of their George Catlin
collection at the December 2004 Sotheby’s sale.

The discussion began as soon as the storied aired with a Kristopher Heinekamp commenting: “The only functioning aspects of society are the things that directly benefit the Oligarchy.  All other social institutions fall to the wayside.  Can’t afford a ticket to the Field [Museum]?  WELL, TOO BAD WEALTHY PEOPLE DON’T SHARE YOUR IDEOLOGY!  NO LEARNING FOR YOU!  Classy.  Cause, you know, MUSEUMS are now politicized.  My fondest memories of the Field Museum are definitely the Socialist Indoctrination Room, with a close second to the Liberal Brainwashing section.  What sick, craven world do you live in that MUSEUMS are somehow a “Liberal” institution?  What, is LEARNING a “Liberal” conspiracy?”

Geo Douglas wrote: “The story cited the sell off was ‘to pay for certain staff salaries’ as well as to buy artifacts.  That is outside of the guidelines of acquisition and care.  It’s a conflict of interest.  That could make it possible for the money gained to go directly to the person who authorized the sell.”  Julia T. responded: “Well, heck, Geo.  Isn’t that kinda what we did with Wall Street?  Supposedly, the financial institutions were crumbling, back in 2008.  There was no money.  And a second Great Depression looked possible.  Then, Bush give them the TARP bailout.  Next think you know, we hear of CEOs getting multi-million dollar bonuses….”

The commenters (note: not commentators) left very few suggestions.  Cat’s Paw only had to say: “Go to the museum.  Spend some money there with your family.”

Exceptionally, the popular debate about what to do with struggling museums and art institutions can be boiled down with the comments of just two people.  Julia T. stated sarcastically: “God forbid, we preserve anything that could provide culture and knowledge to us or future generations.”  General Specific responded: “Go ahead and preserve what you and your friends want.  No one is stopping you.”

The NPR story and comments can be found at: “Chicago’s Famed Field Museum Struggles to Dig Out of Hole,” Morning Edition, May 6, 2013.