By Heather Gillers, Chicago Tribune reporter
9:00 AM EDT, March 28, 2013
The Field Museum is offering scientists early retirement packages for the third time in five years as the institution struggles to cope with flat revenues and a high debt burden.
The offer was distributed Friday to 16 of the museum's 27 curators — scientists who help develop exhibits but also identify new species and discover artifacts that illuminate ancient cultures. Eligibility was based on age and years of service.
Museum spokeswoman Nancy O'Shea said that the Field is hoping the job cuts will add $1 million in savings to the $2 million in non-salary budget cuts the institution already has identified in its science division. President Richard Lariviere has said he hopes to cut an additional $2 million from other museum functions for a total of $5 million — or 8 percent — cut from the museum's annual budget.
Scientific work has historically been a key part of the Field Museum's demanding dual mission. While the Field's acclaimed exhibits educate and entertain more than a million visitors every year, the institution also rates among the country's top research museums. Lariviere, who took over the museum in October, has said he is committed to maintaining its scientific importance.
Board Chairman John Rowe told the Tribune in December, however, that shoring up the Field's financial situation could involve "shrinking certain areas of inquiry," and Lariviere has since merged the museum's zoology, anthropology, botany and geology departments into a single unit.
A Tribune report published earlier this month found that the Field is struggling with a burdensome debt load in the wake of a decadelong capital improvement campaign during which the museum pushed forward with projects without first raising sufficient money to pay for them.
The resulting shortfalls have taken a toll. The number of curators at the museum is down 27 percent, from 37 in 2000. The number of staff at the museum, now 505, is down about 12 percent over the same period. Curators have until May 10 to decide whether to take the buyout.
Five curators and three other members of the museum's science staff were among the 23 museum staffers who accepted early retirement packages in 2008. When the museum reduced its staff by nearly 10 percent in 2010, 11 more scientific staffers — but no curators — accepted voluntary separation packages.
Incentivized retirements were one of the money-saving options suggested last month by a committee of curators, executives and board members as an alternative to layoffs.
"Clearly, this is a less confrontational way of cutting back on science," said anthropology curator Jonathan Haas, who was not a member of the committee.
It's not clear whether the museum might still lay off curators and other staff if it cannot achieve the hoped-for cost savings through early retirements. The committee of curators, executives and trustees determined that the museum's financial circumstances are not dire enough to justify letting curators go, but a spokesman for the museum said the committee's recommendations are not binding.
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