My grandfather has a louse named after him.
How did that happen? Research.
Where did that happen? Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History
I have been thinking a lot about the Field Museum in the past two days, since they announced they will be cutting staff, research, and refocusing their mission. As a professional in the library/archives/museum field, this deeply saddens me. It saddens me even more as the granddaughter of a Field Museum research scientist.
My grandfather, Melvin Alvah Traylor, Jr., spent the bulk of his career researching for the Field Museum. In our family, it is simply known as “the museum.” Though our visits to the Midwest were more often to the family lake house, no trip to Chicago was complete without a day spent at the museum. My most vivid memories are the visits behind the scenes, viewing specimens that Grandpa collected over the years. On his collecting trips they acquired more birds than anyone would today, using methods that are no longer best practice. I remember the smell of the chemical preservatives as each cabinet drawer was opened, the birds neatly arranged, all with paper identification tags attached with string. Audrey Niffenegger writes of this so well in The Time Traveler’s Wife, that I felt as if she’d stolen my memory.
Years after he retired, Grandpa continued his work. The “new guys” welcomed him, and he enjoyed working and learning with them, as well. I have met some of these people. Even if they didn’t continue to praise his work, I would still think of them as wonderful. They came to his funeral, and afterward to the house. One regaled us with stories from his own research.
To me, the Field Museum embodies research. To cut research is to change its entire spirit; a spirit that is not meant to change. Want to switch from handwriting notes to typewriting them and later to word processing them? Fine, that is progress. Want to switch from shooting massive numbers of a single species of bird to methods that are better for everyone and everything around us? Excellent, social responsibility must be valued. Regardless of the methods, the products of research are unique and invaluable. There is nothing unique or valuable about raising admission prices so a visitor – from in or out of town – can view a commodified exhibit and purchase a chain hamburger or latte.
Research lives on, long after the researcher. It is meant to be built upon. Last I knew, my grandfather’s papers are still in desks and file cabinets in the Bird Division. While I was in graduate school, I spoke with the department about possibly processing the collection. Now, as a slightly more seasoned archivist, I am glad I did not. This wonderful body of work needs to be added to the archives by someone with a much greater knowledge of the subject than I have, so it is in the best condition for future researchers to reference.
So please, Field Museum, reconsider. Think about all the wonderful material at your disposal that can continue to grow and provide knowledge. Continue to provide a unique and valuable experience for your visitors. Give them something they can not find on every street corner. Research, teach, and inspire both your staff and the public. Allow someone else’s grandchild to blog, years from now, about their love for an institution that has always been 900 miles from home, but deeply rooted in their heart.