When the American Museum of Natural History laid off 50 full-time staffers beginning this summer, employees were required to take a vow of omertà by signing confidentiality agreements if they wished to continue receiving benefits. By signing the document, a copy of which was obtained by The Observer , departing staffers agreed “not to make, or cause to be made, any statements (oral or written) that disparages [ sic ] programs, staff, management, trustees, or officers of the Museum or is likely in any way to harm the Museum’s or your business or reputation.”
Many who signed the agreement said that it left a lingering bad taste in their mouths. Laid-off or not, they had devoted their careers to the nonprofit sector, and this was straight out of the Wall Street play book. It was just one sign among many, they felt, that times-and, perhaps more nebulously, an institutional ethos-were changing at the beloved Central Park West fixture.
After a decade in which it doubled both its staff and its operating budget, the American Museum of Natural History is now retrenching. Faced with a drop in visitors and financial support, including a $1.4 million cut in funding from the city, the museum has shed 300 full- and part-time employees since the fall of 2001, bringing its staff down 17 percent, to 1,400. A hiring freeze was put in place after Sept. 11, 2001.
In the wake of the recent round of layoffs, scientists and others concerned about the museum’s future fear that it may be trading in its more scholarly past for a glitzier “Discovery” style. Those who remember the more challenging-indeed, more mysterious-Natural History Museum of their childhoods may bristle at the museum’s five shops full of dinosaur tchotchkes. Likewise, crowd-friendly exhibits that have only a tenuous relation to the museum’s research-like recent ones on baseball and chocolate-can seem like a slight to the museum’s scientists. Some shows seem like afterthoughts to gift shops: The current exhibit on Vietnam, for example, is barely twice as big as the adjacent shop and new Vietnamese café. Critics fear that visiting the Natural History Museum might one day be no different from shopping at the Nature Company or watching the Discovery Channel, or visiting any mall-like “learning center.”
For their part, museum officials say support for science is stronger than ever. The numbers back them up-and yet the perception remains that the museum is more concerned with glamming itself up than fostering serious science. In perception and practice, uniting its two halves-the noisy public spaces and the quieter research labs-may be the biggest challenge facing the museum in the years ahead.
For now, the scientists-whose research, after all, forms the museum’s traditional raison d’être -can feel a little like second-class citizens. “As a scientist, you begin to feel as though you’re window-dressing for a large commercial operation,” said Malcolm McKenna, a vertebrate paleontologist who chose to retire from the museum in 2000 in order to do more field work.
Furthermore, many staffers say that morale is low, largely as a result of the layoffs. According to Anne Canty, a spokeswoman for the museum, “the vast majority” of reductions were the result “of a careful program of attrition, early retirements and the reorganization of some part-time positions.” The museum went about the layoffs, Ms. Canty said, “in a sensitive manner, and there were meetings with staff and management to discuss the staff reductions.”
But staffers say the layoffs were handled poorly. “I was shocked at the way the layoffs crept up,” said Ross MacPhee, a curator in the division of vertebrate zoology. “It happened, to my way of thinking, with extremely little warning.” He said the layoffs were “never well-explained by the administration” and that staffers had to “piece together the story.” Some of the layoffs, he added, “do not make sense to me.” The library, for instance, lost a research librarian and some other personnel. “I thought this was really not the right thing to do,” Mr. MacPhee said. “In addition to everything else, we have a world-class natural-history library.”
Worse even than the layoffs, current and former employees said, was the confidentiality agreement.
Why would a museum ask its former staffers to sign such a document? Ms. Canty said the provision in question was “standard” and designed “as much for the protection of the individual” as “for the protection of the institution. We have been informed by counsel that we would be remiss if we did not include a provision like this,” she said.
Standard or not, the confidentiality agreement rankled. “We’re not paid enough to guarantee our silence,” said Melanie Stiassny, a curator of ichthyology, who said she had not seen or heard of the agreement before. One former staffer in a scientific department, whose job had been terminated and who spoke on condition of anonymity, accused the museum of living up to a notorious line he attributed to Machiavelli: that “you should treat a worker like a fruit: suck all the juices and throw the rind away at the end.”
There were warning signs that layoffs were in the cards. In the late 1990’s, the entire museum staff was asked to sign a document acknowledging that the State of New York is an at-will employer, said another former staffer who did not sign the confidentiality agreement and spoke on condition of anonymity. The implication, the former staffer said, was “that we can fire you any time we want.”
Ms. Canty, however, said it was a “standard form” included in most employee handbooks, designed “primarily for the protection of the employee.” She said the museum was “informed that we would be remiss if we did not clarify the standard terms of employment in New York State.”
There have been other cutbacks. According to Ms. Canty, the museum targeted areas most affected by the decrease in attendance after the terrorist attacks, such as visitors’ services. But the science side has also been affected: Most visibly, the museum sold off its house organ, Natural History magazine, in 2002, saying it was not part of its “core mission”-a statement some scientists said shocked them. “A lot of people have been concerned that it’s now no longer published by the museum,” said Hans-Dieter Sues, the associate director for science and collections at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, one of the country’s other leading natural-history museums. “I generally think museums should have these kinds of public flagships.” The museum has also pulled the plug on Micropaleontology Press, a small in-house outfit that publishes original research.
Yet by most outward appearances the museum is thriving. Thanks to the fundraising skills and leadership of its president since 1993, Ellen Futter, the museum went through a hugely successful building boom in the 1990’s. In 2000, to much fanfare, it opened the architecture award-winning Rose Center for Earth and Space, which superseded the decrepit but beloved Hayden Planetarium. Designed by James Stewart Polshek, the Rose Center cost $210 million, of which the Rose family donated $20 million. It also opened the Natural Sciences Building, which houses scientific research and collection storage facilities. To go with the new buildings, the museum increased its research initiatives. It started an entire astrophysics department to go with the Rose Center, and founded the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation and the Institute for Comparative Genomics.
This spring, the museum re-opened its newly renovated Milstein Hall of Ocean Life. The aging blue whale was given a new paint job and a few nips and tucks, and the ceiling to which it’s forever moored now flickers with veiny blue projected light, simulating the ocean. The Milstein family chipped in $15 million for the renovation, and the city another $10.5 million. The Arthur Ross Hall of Meteorites also re-opened with new displays, including the reinstallation of Ahnighito, a 34-ton chunk of meteorite whose supports go far into the bedrock of Central Park West. Private donors tend to be far happier to donate capital funding to put their names on new halls and buildings than to underwrite plumbing repairs. For that, the museum has relied on city largesse. With the help of $50 million in capital funding from the city since the early 90’s, the museum was also able to stop deferring maintenance, and moved ahead with such unsexy renovations as improving collection storage and installing climate control. As the museum is on city-owned land, the city also pays its utilities bill.
While entirely separate, capital and operating budgets are intimately related, and tend to create a vicious cycle: More capital growth means more square feet that have to be heated and lit and staffed, which means an increase in the operating budget, which means a need for more revenue streams, which means glitzier exhibits to draw in the crowds, plus a bigger fund-raising and marketing staff-which, in a time of budget cuts, means less money for research and the scientific staff. As Philippe de Montebello, the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, has said of the effects of the 1990s building boom on museums in general, “It’s not the glow of health, it’s the flush of fever.”
The Natural History Museum’s annual operating budget grew to $116 million for this fiscal year from $56 million in 1993, and before the layoffs, the staff had more than doubled, from 800 in 1993, to 1700 in 2001. In those years, the museum added more operations and administrative support, like marketing, finance and public relations staff, and a few more scientists, too. Even without adding staff, museums’ operating budgets tended to grow exponentially throughout the 90’s. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, for instance, saw its budget grow to $160 million this year from $96 million in 1994, which it attributes to the higher cost of insurance and benefits, while its staff remained about the same at 2,500.
According to American Museum of Natural History officials, the budget has weathered some rough spots due to the current economic climate, but its general trend toward growth is a healthy one, and will not compromise the museum’s scientific mission. “We’ve had challenges, like all other institutions, with the economy,” said Michael Novacek, the museum’s provost and a paleontologist. “But the museum itself has to grow in order to be a place of great cultural interest to an audience. It would be a better characterization to say we didn’t grow enough in the 80’s. We were a sleeping giant.”
Still, some scientists are baffled by what appears to be the museum’s new set of priorities. “It’s been plain over the years that the place has become top-heavy. That’s not good,” said Mr. McKenna. “Science is not as well supported proportionally in my view at the American Museum now as it once was.” He said the “absolute figures are probably pretty good,” but that the proportional ones may not be. “Most of the money goes to pay for the people in the top echelon. There’s a great deal of spinning of wheels. Where does that money go? It doesn’t go to science, but to the maintenance of the fundraising staff.”
Ms. Canty said that on the contrary, “As science, education and exhibition have risen as percentages of the budget, the resources allocated to general administration have fallen.”
She said the museum was structured like an academic institution. “The scientific divisions are managed by scientists.” The provost, a paleontologist, is responsible for all the science divisions. The dean of science, an anthropologist, oversees exhibitions. An associate dean of collections, a herpetologist, is responsible for infrastructure and collection maintenance and storage policies.
“Despite an extremely challenging post-9/11 economic situation, the museum has actually increased its commitment to science,” said Ms. Canty. “Funding for science as a percentage of the museum’s budget has increased and more museum resources are dedicated to science than to any other area of the museum,” she said. “Science is a core mission of the institution and it informs all of our other activities.”
But while scientists may not have been targeted for layoffs, their staff hasn’t grown as much as planned. The new astrophysics department, for example, was expected to grow more quickly. It has two full-time faculty members, and just got the approval to hire a third, said David Helfand, the chair of the Astronomy Department at Columbia University, who has advised the museum since 1992. “We’re not halfway there yet,” Mr. Helfand said. That department relies heavily on federal funding, including from NASA. Mr. Novacek said the museum was also currently hiring in paleontology and microbiology.
Muttering About Futter
Some staff members also said they have concerns about Ms. Futter’s management style. A former president of Barnard College, Ms. Futter is said to have a good rapport with the board of trustees, and is a first-class fund-raiser-she should probably win a prize for how quickly the museum managed to build the Rose Center, no small feat in New York’s morass of red tape. Yet employees have accused her of being unpredictable in whom she chooses to hire and fire, creating a climate of fear in which employees never know who might go next. Ms. Canty said that claim was “absurd and absolutely not true.”
Other cultural players in the city are aware of the grumbling, but see it as a passing cold rather than a serious bout of pneumonia. Kate Levin, the city’s culture commissioner, said the museum was doing its best in trying economic times. As for its flagging morale, “Compared to the amount of acrimony at most hospitals between administrators and doctors, it’s a pretty collegial institution,” said Ms. Levin. That it allowed more than 200 people to leave due to attrition before turning to layoffs “suggests to me they’ve gone to the limit to be as compassionate and respectful as possible,” said Ms. Levin. “They’re really leaders in taking a long, hard look at what their business model needed to be and not waiting around for some Hail Mary pass that wasn’t going to materialize,” she said. “They acted in a very responsible way.”
Indeed, the layoffs and the confidentiality agreement, however ruthless, may be a sign of the times. “The trick is not to think of museums as museums,” said Stephen Weil, scholar emeritus at the Smithsonian Institution who has written widely on museum practices and history. “They’re employers like all other employers,” he said. “There’s very little that happens in museums that’s unique to museums. Certainly not employment.”
But shouldn’t museums, especially a research institution like the Natural History Museum, be immune to the methods of Wall Street? “You have to make a distinction between being businesslike in process and businesslike in goals. The goals of a not-for-profit is for social outcome, a difference it can make in the community. The goal of a for-profit business is a profit,” Mr. Weil said. “But in what they do, which is to take raw materials and add value to them, there is no reason not-for-profits should not be as businesslike and efficient as any other organization. I think that’s museums, universities, hospitals, a million not-for-profit organizations.”
Even allowing for the need to draw crowds, some scientists still lament what they see as the unnecessary flashiness of the planetarium shows. “You don’t want me to get into my end of civilization speech do you?” Mr. Helfand said. “It’s obvious that the shows themselves are, shall we say, influenced by popular culture,” he said. There’s “some Hollywood glitz that I could do without.” Even if scientifically, the new shows are “a step forward, not backward,” Mr. Helfand said, “I personally would prefer a little bit more of the old night sky tour that one got.”
Others say the Natural History Museum still has some of the best displays around. “I don’t think we could really be accused of being Disneyfied,” said Ms. Stiassny, who worked on the renovation of the Milstein Hall of Ocean Life. “Frankly, I think our exhibits stand head and shoulders above most others in the country and certainly in the world,” she said. That’s partly because the museum has an in-house exhibition department. “The scientists have daily interaction with the writers, the designers, the architects, everything done in house, making the models, that’s an incredible luxury.”
Ultimately, it may just be a matter of uniting the two halves of the museum. Mr. MacPhee suggested the museum organize shows that illustrate what the scientists do all day. How about one that demonstrates how the scientists prepare animal skeletons, using the larvae of flesh-eating Dermestid beetles to clean the bones? While not exactly pretty, that kind of treatment, he said, is “very desirable,” Mr. MacPhee said. “What I’d like to see in the future is some recognition that if you want the science side of this place to maintain its prominence, it’s very useful that you make it known to ordinary constituents that there are all these things going on behind the scenes.”
Indeed, in spite of the financial woes, the bad morale and the alarming level of slickness, staffers and outsiders alike say the museum is still a serious place for serious science. In Astrophysics, the budget cuts have “impacted their ability to do what they could have done, but it certainly hasn’t affected the quality” of the work, Mr. Helfand said. “It’s affected the rate at which they’re doing their projects, but they absolutely are pouring papers out of the place, which are first-rate stuff.”
“Lord knows we have our problems, but lack of support for science is not one of them,” said Ms. Stiassny. “There’s tremendous appreciation on the part of the administration and members of the board of trustees,” she said. Midway through a phone conversation, Ms. Stiassny could be heard expressing delight over the arrival of an electroshocker used to stun fish.
Besides, with these scientists, it’s always something. “If you’d talked to them 30 years ago they would have said the same thing,” said Mr. Weil. “It’s like Broadway is dying. Broadway’s always been dying.”
“We could all kvetch about whether it’s good times or bad times. Probably in many regards we’re doing better now than we have in any comparable period in the past,” said Mr. MacPhee. “My evidence is that the staff in science is continuing to increase.” Furthermore, the museum is “continuing to increase the range of organisms we cover,” adding the study of viruses and bacteria, which he said would have “significant implications for human and animal health,” he said. In spite of it all, “You have to conclude that things ain’t so bad here,” he said. Then again, Mr. MacPhee would take the long view. “I have a much longer historical perspective,” he said. What does he study? Extinctions-over the course of the last 40,000 years.