Quest for fire

The Dallas Museum of Natural History seeks a hot new concept to save itself from extinction

Susan Campbell takes pride in knowing a chameleon from an anole. (It's an anole running down your backyard fence.) She has been known to spend 100 hours designing a box of skulls and bones and animal teeth for children to paw through, and her idea of a good time is sitting in a dark, dusty basement lab while an entomologist shows off the phosphorescent characteristics of a scorpion as inner-city kids sit spellbound.

Campbell teaches a course called Science Safari to city kids through their schools and the Parks and Recreation Department, among other venues. Simply stated, her goal is to make children "aware of the world beneath the pavement, before it's lost," she says.

Her favorite destination to take kids is Fair Park, where her favorite attraction is not the wildly popular Science Place, with its noisy, frenetic, almost arcade-like approach to the world's wonders, but the quieter, calmer Dallas Museum of Natural History next door. There the animals are real--if not alive--not the plastic replicas of the Science Place and, she believes, offer children a more valuable and deeper educational experience.

"The Science Place is the McDonald's of museums," explains Campbell. "The attractions are prepackaged. It's a lot of hype but not a whole lot of meat. The Museum of Natural History is a warm place where you sit on the floor in front of an exhibit and tell the children the story of our past, and the staff--they would drop everything to talk to the kids."

It stands to reason, then, that Campbell has long been bothered by the fact that Dallas treats the Museum of Natural History as a "red-headed stepchild"--with less than half the budget, two-thirds less staff, and a third the space of the glitzy Science Place.

It goes beyond not tapping the Museum of Natural History's potential; Campbell fears the 60-year-old institution is "falling apart." She has reason to worry.

Beset by financial problems, the museum recently had to slash $150,000 from its operating budget, forcing it in October to lay off four senior personnel, including paleontologist Charles Finsley, an expert in Texas fossils who had worked there 35 years, and education director Marilyn Stidham, a 15-year veteran of the museum whose department, according to present and former staff and volunteers, was one of the institution's strongest. "I think they may be killing the patient in order to save it," says Arlene Pike, a former museum staffer, who lost her job in an earlier round of budget cuts.

A more serious indicator of the turmoil is the departure of more than a dozen museum docents--many who have volunteered their time for over a decade--who say they are upset at the departure of Stidham and Finsley and the museum's new direction.

"It's tragic," says Campbell. "I feel like I've broken up with a boyfriend I was madly in love with."

The only thing clear in the recent flurry of dislocations and departures is that the Dallas Museum of Natural History is struggling to survive. If evolving as a research institute and a civic attraction weren't enough, it faces crucial problems of funding and resulting staff cutbacks. While the number of its staff scientists has diminished from five to two in recent years, the museum has recently hired two new, young scientists--a paleontologist and an archeologist--with ties to several well-known institutions and a more rigorous interest in scholarship than previous staffers.

Contrary to the prophets of doom, the museum administration sees recent changes as the beginning of a revitalization. The museum plans to renovate its 60-year-old dioramas over the next two years and hopes to add a long-needed "star-attraction" exhibition, which will require a new wing and a multi-million dollar capital campaign. But critics say these projects, whose completion dates are years away, should have been begun years ago. And despite an early December meeting to determine what this stellar attraction would be, the board came to no conclusions.

In the meantime, the museum will continue hosting traveling exhibits--such as last year's well-attended Magic School Bus exhibit about geological formation. Unfortunately, although the traveling exhibits raised the museum's profile, almost every one in the last three years lost money.

Former staffers blame the museum's troubles on a weak board and a director--Henry Schulson--who they claim lacks the charisma, vision, and backbone it takes to make the museum vital again. Schulson and the board, which supports him completely, chalk up the museum's present turbulence to unfortunate, but predictable, growing pains and unrealistic revenue projections. Their critics, they say, are just resistant to change.

Schulson and board members admit there is a serious problem looming on the horizon. Three years ago, the Museum of Natural History was privatized--meaning the control of the institution was transferred from the city, which had run the place for 57 years, to the museum board. As a downside of gaining direct control of itself, the museum in the next two years will see a drastic reduction in the amount of money it receives from the city--a loss of as much as $300,000, which amounts to a quarter of its operating budget.

Dr. James E. King, president of the Association of Science Museum Directors, says he and his colleagues preside over a community that is in "a state of flux." Some natural history museums, such as those in Manhattan, Denver, and Houston, are experiencing tremendous success and unparalleled growth, fueled by far-sighted boards who have capitalized, in part, on the country's ongoing love affair with dinosaurs.

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