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Natural history museum in the red

| Friday, Dec. 6, 2013, 12:09 a.m.

The leaders of the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh have a problem with their Museum of Natural History: It's losing too much money.

Officials say the Museum of Natural History loses $1 million to $2 million a year, a figure they're trying to reduce by offering voluntary buyouts to the museum's seven senior curators — the first step in making the museum pay its own way. In the past, bosses of the four-museum complex made up the losses with money not designated for a specific use.

The buyouts pit curators, who are scientists and researchers, against top administrators.

“It's a very bad idea,” said Mary Dawson, curator emeritus of paleontology at the Museum of Natural History.

She contends the curators make scientific discoveries that find their way into textbooks and school programs. They also influence what goes into the museum's exhibits.

“Picking on these people in this way will unfavorably affect the educational role the museum can have,” she said. “I'm very concerned about it.”

David Hillenbrand, interim president of the Carnegie Museums, disagrees.

“It's not fiscally responsible to run a deficit because someone may judge a particular area of research valuable or interesting. We wouldn't survive very long if we continued to do our business that way,” he said.

Hillenbrand said the mother institution is thriving. He expects it will end fiscal 2013 with a surplus of about $100,000 and that its endowment passed $300 million for the first time.

The Carnegie consists of the Museum of Natural History and the Museum of Art in Oakland, the Science Center on the North Shore and the Andy Warhol Museum on the North Side. The four-museum complex has an operating budget of about $60 million a year.

The Carnegie Museum of Natural History faces financial problems similar to museums across the country. The Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, for example, lost a total of $40 million in 2009 and 2010, according to its federal tax returns.

“The model that worked for the last century is not a viable model for the 21st century,” said Ron Baillie, co-director of the science center. “The great philanthropists funding great scientific expeditions in the 20th century are not funding great scientific expeditions anymore.”

Zhe-Xi Luo, a paleontologist at the University of Chicago, was curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History until two years ago.

“I would love to see the Carnegie Museums preserve its capacity to do science. I support the museum scientists,” he said.

John E. Rawlins, curator of entomology at the Carnegie, was offered a buyout but declined. He said scientists need to be entrepreneurial. With the buyouts, he said, the museum will have some research but not the richness or synergy of the past.

“There is an optimism here. It may seem dismal to some,” he said.

Carnegie leaders declined to say how much they hope to save from the buyouts. The senior curators have until Dec. 15 to apply, said Ann Metzger, co-director of the science center.

The next step for the Museum of Natural History is to recruit a new head of science, then a new director. After that, Hillenbrand continued, the emphasis is on getting more money, not making further reductions.

Cutting the natural history museum's deficit was so important that Carnegie's board did not want Hillenbrand to wait for a new president. In fact, he said, the board was concerned that the issue might hamper the search for a new president.

The board hired consultant Spencer Stuart to help with the search. The hope is that the new president will be chosen in the first quarter of this year, Hillenbrand said.

He has been filling in since the start of the year, when president and CEO John Wetenhall left after less than two years.

Bill Zlatos is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7828 or bzlatos@tribweb.com.

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