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Quest for fire

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.

Others, notably those traditionally supported exclusively with public funds, such as the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, are in dire financial straits, King says, as local and state funding continues to shrink.

Regardless, all of these institutions are going through a period of soul searching, says King, who is the executive director of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, one of the country's oldest and largest. "Natural history museums are thought of as 19th-century anachronisms," he says. "In many cases, we are dealing with old exhibits and old exhibit halls that don't reflect the realities of TV, video, and Internet that are driving our society. We have a world of things to offer, but we have to be more creative with what we do. Someone recently asked me when we were going to get into virtual reality. We are reality."

Another problem vexing natural history museums is how to balance what has traditionally been their twin missions--to provide public education and to conduct important research, which is a costly endeavor.

"It's a Catch-22," says Ed Able, executive director of the American Association of Museums in Washington, D.C. Research is important, but costly, Able explains, and it doesn't attract the ticket-buying public.

"Research doesn't mean a lot to visitors," agrees King, whose staff consists of 25 Ph.D.s. "What you need is someone who can bridge the gap between science and the public, someone who can articulate your mission, who can convey that what we do is neat and important."

Like the core buildings in Fair Park, the Museum of Natural History was built for the Texas Centennial celebration in 1936. With its handsome stone walls, open atrium, and majestic marble staircase, it is an exact, albeit smaller, replica of the Denver Museum of Natural History. While other buildings in Fair Park were not originally built to last, the Museum of Natural History was to be permanent. Accordingly, its collections grew in size and prominence, thanks to Hal Kirby, its first director, one of only three the museum has had. Kirby attracted a dedicated group of naturalists with a variety of specialties and encouraged them to create a museum focused on the rich natural diversity and history of the region.

"That museum was an incredible place," says Dr. Richard Fullington, an internationally known malacologist, or mollusk expert, who was forced because of the budget cutting to retire from the museum two years ago after 25 years of service. "We were leaders in the Southwest in natural history, in education, public programming, building exhibits, and in publishing. Our collections of birds, mammals, invertebrates, and fossils are outstanding in the Southwest--and in the world."

The staff scientists spent a great deal of their time in the field, taking interested local citizens on trips throughout the state or unearthing objects to build their collections, most of which are not on display today because of the museum's small size.

The impressive legacy of paleontologist Charles Finsley can be seen in the second-floor dinosaur hall: the huge mammoth, found by a farmer plowing his field; a mosasaur, a prehistoric sea creature discovered in 1979 at Lake Ray Hubbard; and the plant-eating tenontosaurus, the first Texas dinosaur displayed in the state.

The museum displayed its specimens in lifelike poses: the tenontosaurus looks like it is ready to sprint; the mosasaur, believed to be related to the modern leatherback turtle, appears to be caught in midstroke. These 15-year-old exhibits were ahead of their time; in recent years, museums around the country, including the prestigious American Museum of Natural History, have gone to great expense to rebuild their dinosaur specimens in more lifelike poses.

"We were small, so everything we did had to be the best," says Marilyn Stidham, the former education director.

Director Henry Schulson agrees. The American Museum of Natural History in New York City may be the best of its breed, he says, "but you won't find anything as fine as these specimens there."

 

Though the museum was solely supported by the city back then, the work of many of the scientists was funded by local philanthropists. Finsley found a benefactor in Ned Mudge, who would go on to donate his own collection of books on rare birds to the museum, which is too short on space to display it. Staff scientists say they had enough money to become leaders in their fields. During his tenure, Fullington described over 11 species of mollusks, published 49 papers, and, along with his fellow staffers, wrote all the natural history data for the ubiquitous Texas Almanac.

In its heyday, the museum had a half-dozen scientists on its staff--an ornithologist, two mammalogists, a malacologist, a paleontologist, an entomologist--who all considered themselves naturalists first and foremost and also knew a little about each other's specialties.

Present and former staff agree the museum's salad days ended abruptly in 1979 with the death of Hal Kirby. He was replaced by Louis Gorr, who was moved to the museum by the city after a stint as head of Old City Park, a historical exhibition. By most accounts, Gorr had little interest or understanding in nature or science.

"He didn't know the difference between a bird and a butterfly," says Fullington. "He thought our field work was junkets and stopped them. That's when the museum started going downhill."

Gorr was bored by the collections, thought the "dioramas of dead animals were icky," says a former staffer, and rarely entered the education department, except to look at his vacation slides. But the staff still maintained their sense of purpose, which they conveyed to a loyal cadre of volunteers and docents.

"You always felt you were doing something important," says Arlene Pike, who started at the museum as a volunteer and went on to work for paleontologist Finsley and even discovered a new crab fossil. "The staff made you feel that way. It was a special place, like a family."

With their research work curtailed, the scientists worked closely with local hobbyists--speaking to gem and mineral clubs and even local hunting groups--in the hopes of someday getting the amateurs to donate their collections to the museum. The effort continues to pay off. Two years ago, Frank Crane, an oil man from Highland Park, bequeathed a world-class collection of invertebrate fossils to the museum. Six months ago, Tucker Davis donated his fine fossil collection.

The staff also aided the education department, teaching docents and always making themselves available to address groups of schoolchildren. A big part of their job was simply answering questions that poured in from the public, certain the cattle bones they had discovered in their backyard creeks were dinosaur-era fossils. Sometimes they were. "Regardless," says Stidham, "Finsley always took the time to make you feel like they were."

Louis Gorr's tenure was not all bad for the museum. He was cognizant of the need to begin revitalizing the museum--its permanent exhibits, such as the dioramas, were getting stale and its collections were deteriorating along with the building's infrastructure. Aware also that the museum had to look beyond the city for financial support, Gorr began attracting a cadre of young, civic-minded Dallasites to the board.

Eliza Solender, manager of human resources for Sun Oil at the time, was one of the first of this new breed of board member. Gorr met her in a class of Leadership Dallas--a Chamber of Commerce sponsored program where emerging civic leaders learn more about the city--and instantly enlisted her in his cause.

Solender hadn't been to the museum in years and was shocked to see the first-floor diorama halls--filled with tableaux showing Texas' rich diversity of animals, plants, birds, and reptiles--hadn't changed since she was a little girl.

"The place really needed us," says Solender. "It needed to be more modern. The exhibits needed better lighting, better labeling, and to be more interactive." Solender helped raise several hundred thousand dollars to build the paleontology hall on the second floor. She was immediately asked to be on the board and has served ever since.

Gorr left in 1985 and, for the next five years, the institution was run by a series of acting directors from the museum staff as the board and the city jockeyed for control of the place. The museum was adrift, as the board was preoccupied with competing for--and ultimately winning--the phenomenally successful Ramses exhibit.

On display for four months starting in March 1989 in the Fair Park automobile building, the golden riches of the Egyptian Pharaoh raised the museum's profile and created a $1.2 million endowment for the institution. The museum now had new blood and new momentum, or so it seemed.

The Ramses exhibit was a heady experience for the museum--exhilarating, profitable, and ultimately exhausting. As the Ramses exhibit wound down in the fall of 1989, the board hired a new director--Henry Schulson, a mild-mannered, studious-looking fellow who had spent almost his entire career at the American Museum of Natural History, first as a volunteer while in high school, then as a manager of membership and then of development. By his own admission, Schulson applied for the Dallas job as a lark, simply for the interview experience.

 

For the next several years, Schulson and the board had their work cut out for them. They launched a $2 million capital campaign to augment the $1.5 million in bond money, passed in 1985, for substantial capital improvements to the building. Among other things, they built a large exhibit space on the second floor and put in a small, but inviting, permanent children's discovery section. Then, in 1993, the museum went private, entering into an agreement with the city that the public would continue to provide $660,000--almost half the museum's budget--for the next five years, while the institution developed ways to bring in its own revenue.

Unfortunately, one of the museum's biggest gambles--traveling exhibits--backfired. Over the past three years, the museum has hosted roughly eight traveling exhibits to mixed success. Some simply failed to attract attendance. Others, like an exhibit on sharks, were hugely popular, but still lost money. The bulk of visitors came to see the exhibit during the Texas State Fair when admission to the museum is free.

The progress over the last decade at the Museum of Natural History has been important, but pales in comparison to that at Science Place II, which had taken over the old Dallas Museum of Art space in Fair Park in 1985, and seemed to be growing in leaps and bounds ever since. In the late 1980s, Science Place opened its hands-on Kid's Place exhibit, hosted a robotic dinosaur exhibit, which had huge public appeal, and created its permanent interactive exhibit on the human body.

"The Science Place was very aggressive," concedes Schulson of his neighbor. "They went for the proven popular exhibits."

As far as attendance is concerned, it obviously worked. The Science Place attracts 500,000 visitors a year, while the Museum of Natural History brings in about 200,000. The satellite location of the natural history museum in NorthPark--a mixture of small displays, a gift shop, and Saturday morning children's classes--attracts an additional 100,000.

The Science Place's budget has ballooned to $3.2 million, while that of the Museum of Natural History has hovered at around $1.5 million. With the help of Texas Instruments and EDS, among others, the Science Place is in the midst of raising $13 million for its IMAX theater.

It is tempting to argue that technology museums have the benefit of being trendy, and thus are better capable of attracting audiences and technology-oriented corporate sponsors. But not far away, in Houston, a venerable natural history museum with a biography parallel to the Dallas museum is doing socko business.

Ten years ago, the Houston Museum of Natural History was itself a fossil with tired exhibits and a small budget of $1.7 million. Last year, it had 2.4 million visitors and a budget of $12 million and earned 86 percent of its operating expenses.

The museum's metamorphosis began with the hiring of a new director, Truett Latimer. He had corporate experience and had spent a decade as executive director of the Texas Historical Commission. Latimer, in turn, credits the museum's success to a dynamic board, whose members are each required to rotate off for a year after their terms. If they have produced, they are asked to return. (Dallas board members used to be able to remain for three three-year terms; now they can remain for two terms--longer if they have been a president--before rotating off.)

The turnaround at the Houston museum began with Dinomation, a robotic dinosaur exhibit that raised more than $1 million, giving the museum a much-needed cash infusion. Next, the museum purchased what has become a constant star attraction--a $4 million gem collection, the centerpiece of its mineral hall. The huge popularity of the gem collection gave the board the impetus to continue expanding. The next step was raising funds for an IMAX theater, which opened in 1989. The museum then embarked on a $23 million capital campaign to build a new wing, which houses a magnificent butterfly center and a new paleontology hall. It is about to unveil a new energy hall, with 57 different software programs--developed at the museum--providing information on almost every aspect of the science and technology of petroleum.

The Houston Museum of Natural History has not made research part of its mission, as its Dallas counterpart plans to do. "We're not organized to be a research center," Latimer says. "That can best be done at universities.

 

What is striking is that in the same time period that Dallas limped along, Houston built a world-class natural history museum.

On a recent crisp autumn morning, school buses are lined up along the main thoroughfare of Fair Park, the city's long-neglected, but perhaps most valuable, local attraction. Most of the children head off to the Science Place to see the flashy Star Trek exhibit, where they will get exposed to such fascinating scientific insights as what Mr. Spock wore on the TV show. Another exhibit projects visitors' images inside the Starship Enterprise.

A much smaller number of students this morning are herded off to the Museum of Natural History. Some teen-agers rush to the basement and stare through the glass laboratory windows at the hissing cockroaches the size of small household appliances. A few others shuffle through a bilingual exhibit on the endangered ecology of the flora and fauna on the U.S.-Mexico border, a show composed mostly of photographs and bolstered by some stuffed-animal specimens from the museum's collections.

Henry Schulson is the first to admit his museum suffers from an image problem. For the last decade, the Museum of Natural History has been overshadowed by its glitzier high-tech neighbor, a shadow that is destined to grow much larger when the Science Place unveils its IMAX theater early this summer. Schulson does not begrudge the Science Place its success, though he does get aggravated when it treads on the natural history museum's turf, particularly when the Science Place does exhibits involving dinosaurs.

"When you look at the commitment to real paleontology and science, it's at this institution," says Schulson.

Fair Park's two museums are two different places, with two different missions, explains David Corrigan, the Museum of Natural History's board president. "We are collections-based and we try to use our collections to educate. They are more fun, more 'edutainment.'"

Schulson and Corrigan agree there's room for both to prosper--as soon as the Museum of Natural History figures out exactly what it wants to be. To help answer that question, the board commissioned a study several years ago by the McKenzie & Co. consulting firm. The study investigated, among other things, the feasibility of the museum and Science Place merging, and concluded it wasn't feasible. The study also targeted archeology and paleontology as the two fields the public is most interested in, which is why the museum recently added an archeologist to its staff.

The consulting company has agreed to do another analysis of the star attractions the board is considering implementing. Schulson had hoped the board was going to nail down some concrete ideas at a planning session in early December, but the session was more vague than he had anticipated.

"What we are doing now is long-range planning," Schulson says. "We need to develop a compelling story, a must-see exhibit that makes you say, 'Wow, if you go to the Science Place you have to go here, too.'"

Since what is now Dallas was at the bottom of an ocean during the time of the great dinosaurs, it offers one of the richest paleontological resources of any metro area in the country, something on which the museum hopes to capitalize. One of the possible star attractions the board is considering is something dubbed Jurassic Seas, a sort of aquarium exhibit with robotic mosasaurs swimming through its waters. (Of course, Dallas was under water during the Cretaceous period and high and dry during the Jurassic. What's a few million years when you're trying to market a star attraction?) The board is also considering including an aquarium filled with the modern descendants of the prehistoric sea creatures.

"We need to talk more about evolution, it's fundamental role to natural history, and how different species evolved over time," Schulson says.

Former staffers like Finsely think the robotic prehistoric fish idea smacks of Disneyland--long on imagination, short on scientific fact. When it comes to identifying prehistoric species' living descendants, he says it sounds good, but can't be done. "It's an extremely difficult matter to name the lineage of something like a mosasaur or pleiosaur with animals in an aquarium," says Finsley. "It would entail a fairly extended piece of hearsay."

Finsley believes the museum is desperately trying to glom onto the latest hot civic attraction, aquariums. The museum, in fact, agreed to undertake a feasibility study--funds for which were approved in the 1985 bond election--for a new Fair Park aquarium.

Other ideas for a star attraction include a full-sized replica of a Tyrannosaurus Rex, artificial underground caverns (something Finsley says he recommended years ago), a children's natural history museum, and a butterfly garden. Schulson is also trying to beef up the NorthPark mall site and has conducted preliminary meetings about getting a bigger space to launch a gem collection. As Schulson sees it, the malls are Dallas' version of community centers, neighborhood gathering places. If he can't get people to come to the museum in Fair Park, it'll go to them.

 

But so far, the only definitive plan the museum has is to update and reorganize the four diorama halls on the first floor, which, although outdated, still display the most comprehensive view of Texas natural history in the state. The plans sound exciting, but only a quarter of the money has been raised. The dioramas will be more dramatic and engaging; the buffalo tableau, for instance, will include a viewing area made to look like a campsite, a clap of thunder will cause a stampede, and the floor will shake. Schulson also hopes to create a diorama of extinct and endangered Texas species and wet and dry walk-in caves.

"We want to be a regional museum with a global perspective," Schulson says. The museum's newfound emphasis on research, he believes, is another way to achieve that.

"The Dallas Museum of Natural History is ready to spring to the next level," says Dr. Louis Jacobs, a paleontologist at Southern Methodist University and author of the just-published book, Lone Star Dinosaurs. Jacobs sees the museum's recent commitment to serious research--with the hiring of a new paleontologist and archeologist--as the way to make that leap.

"As I understand it, the museum wants to put behind the exhibits deeper, more specialized expertise in research," Jacobs says. "They want to create new knowledge, not just display what's known. If you want to be more visible and cutting edge, you've got to do it."

Such talk makes former staffers such as Finsley and Fullington bristle. Fullington claims he was doing serious research. As for Finsley, he never saw esoteric research as his role. "It seems to me that the time devoted to doing research on the left toe of the gecko in Australia would be better spent by the staff building our collections," he says, sitting in his bare basement office on his last official day at the museum in mid-November. "I would have liked to do more research, but there was no time."

Schulson says he has heard all of Finsley's arguments, but refuses to buy them. "The role and needs of curators are changing," he says. "They need to generate funds to support their work."

Tony Fiorillo, the new museum paleontologist, fits that bill. His credentials are impressive. He arrived in November from Berkeley, where he was in the second year of a three-year, $250,000 grant from the National Park Service to work in Colorado. At the University of California at Berkeley, he helped create the first virtual natural history museum on the Internet, a project he hopes to replicate here. He did his graduate work at the University of Pennsylvania, where he was involved in collecting the specimens and building many of the exhibits for the opening of the dinosaur hall at the Philadelphia Academy of Science. While working in Montana, he helped discover a new horn dinosaur, which is on display at the Academy.

Fiorillo's interest in paleontology runs much deeper than simply finding new things. "What we try to do is understand the mechanism behind the ecosystem, which will help tell us what was so different back then that let these big animals run around."

Fiorillo doesn't study things quite as obscure as the "left toe of a gecko." He is not just a paleontologist, but also a taphonomist, someone who studies how things get into the fossil record. "In other words," Fiorillo says, "I'm someone who pokes at a lot of dead things."

If Fiorillo's job sounds less than romantic, consider the work of Alex Barker, the museum's archeologist. The movies would have us believe that archeologists travel to exotic locales to find hidden treasure worth untold millions. On a recent afternoon, Barker was sitting in a basement lab in the museum writing tiny numbers on shards of pottery made hundreds of years ago.

"Archeologists don't dig to find things," he says, "they dig to find things out." What Barker wants to find out most is "how we went from an all-for-one-and-one-for-all system, without social hierarchy, to one where one person was considered better and more important than another," he says. "Well, much of the answer lies along the Red River and the Sabine River."

Barker is presently analyzing information excavated decades ago from a North Texas site called Sanders Farm. The results from the excavation, which had never been fully analyzed before, offers evidence that a complex culture existed in this part of the country hundreds of years before previously believed.

 

Barker was hired to develop a regional archeology department at the museum, but found his efforts undermined by the museum's other pressing needs. Six months after he arrived, Schulson made Barker chief curator, where among other things he is in charge of cataloging and preserving a huge number of specimens. Six months later, the board made him head of education as well. He also teaches at Southern Methodist University.

Other people complain that Barker is being spread too thin. But Barker minimizes the problem. "The museum is facing exactly what organisms it studies are facing," he says, "adapting to a changing environment."

Whether Fiorillo and Barker can help catapult the museum into some higher echelon of respectability remains to be seen. They both agree they have their work cut out for them.

Museum supporters wonder and worry whether Fiorillo and Barker will be able to fill their predecessors' shoes, particularly Barker, who has so many pairs to fill. "There's an unrealistic belief that if you can get more Ph.D.s and more published papers, it will mean more money in the bank and more federal grants," gripes Marilyn Stidham, former education director, "but who's going to answer the public's fossil questions? Who can interpret something so abstract and make it a living thing like Finsley did? He was a great educator."

Cathy Childers, a volunteer at the museum for the past 15 years, says the changes at the museum have left her sad and worried. "Their education program was the most organized, together program," says Childers, who has volunteered at numerous other institutions. "Today, after cutback after cutback, it's pathetic. They're trying to shut off education. They don't feel docents are necessary any more. I see more and more children's groups coming through without docents. The training we got was like a semester at SMU. Now we're being pushed through.

"I don't mind change," Childers adds. "If it's change for the better."
About the only thing everyone agrees on is that the role of a natural history museum has never been more important. Where once its role was about simply showing the diversity and origin of nature, now it is about understanding its fragility and how to save it.

"We live in a world facing problems--of the environment, of biodiversity," explains Jacobs. "If the general citizenry doesn't have the depth of knowledge to understand the problem, then we can't hope to fix it."

That's hard to argue with. But concerned citizens hope that the problems besetting the museum itself can be understood and fixed first. "There could be so much more there," says teacher Susan Campbell of Science Safari. "I hope it makes it. I don't care if anyone there publishes research. I just want a great experience for me and my kids.


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