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Plailly/E. Daynes/ Eurelios/Courtesy the Field Museum

A life-sized reconstruction of Lucy, one of the oldest members of the human family, greets visitors entering the hominid section of The Field Museum’s Evolving Planet exhibition.

No diamonds for fossilized Lucy in this economy

by Melissa Suran
Jan 29, 2009


Courtesy of the Field Museum

The Field Museum is only one of many non-profit institutions experiencing financial hardships.

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The Field MuseumChicago History MuseumPeggy Notebaert Nature Museum

If you love Lucy…

Still disappointed about Lucy? Even though it’s not the real deal, the Field Museum does have a model of her remains on display.

“We do have a model of a Lucy skeleton in our evolving planet exhibit and a fleshed out model of what Lucy would have looked like in life,” David Foster said, director of exhibitions at the Field. “We do address the Lucy stage of human development.”

Lucy is one of the oldest and most complete skeletal remains of an Australopithecine, a hominid that lived about 3 million years ago. One of the oldest ancestors on the tree of human origins, Lucy stood at 3 feet 8 inches tall. She was discovered in 1974 in Ethiopia by Donald Johanson and Tom Gray who nicknamed “Lucy” after the Beatle’s song “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” which was blasting on repeat in the camp tent the night she was discovered.

Lucy walked upright, a trait shared by all hominids.

The nation’s economic crisis has hit almost everyone, including a 3.2 million-year-old ancestor named Lucy. Due to a drop in funding and a potential lack of interest, Chicago’s Field Museum canceled an exhibit starring Lucy, one of the oldest fossilized hominids.

But Lucy isn’t the only one not getting any love. Museums all over the country are experiencing hardships because of lost endowments in the stock market. It’s gotten so bad that Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., is closing its Rose Art Museum because of severely diminished endowments.

Endowments and their investment income have become a major source to cover operating costs for many museums and other non-profit institutions. Investments that are supposed to last a lifetime are now melting away with the dramatic plummet in stock market values.

“We started looking at our 2009 budgets in 2008 and we saw the problem emerging,” said David Foster, the director of exhibitions at the Field. “It was first and foremost an economic factor that made us make the decision" to cancel bringing Lucy to Chicago.

It's the best decision for the Field, given museum endowments that have dropped some 30 percent and market research proving little interest in hominid remains, Foster said.

“It's typical. If you called up any museum, they would tell you the same thing, that endowments have gone down…and we are in a recession,” Foster said.

Chicago History Museum President Gary Johnson said his institution lost 17 percent in endowment income, which resulted in various financial changes.

“We have cut our existing budgets by 10 percent on average and froze [hiring for] open positions whenever possible,” said Johnson, who is also president of the city’s museum group, Museums in the Park. “If necessary, we will make up the work by asking staff members to cross departmental lines to help out.”

Not every museum is experiencing the same pain. Some institutions, like Chicago’s Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, didn’t invest millions into the stock market.

“We don’t have a large endowment, so we weren’t as dependent on revenue from our endowment to cover operating costs,” said Molly Riley, the museum’s vice-president of external affairs. “Where we experienced loss is giving from foundations, because their endowments are down.”

Despite the endowment downturn, some museums have noticed that many individuals have stepped up to the plate.

Donor contributions are up at some other institutions, including the Art Institute of Chicago, which saw an approximate 50 percent increase in consolidated gifts to the museum and the School of the Art Institute in 2008. Contributions to Notebaert Museum rose 70 percent.

“Right now, what we’re focused on is reconnecting with past donors and old friends and making sure that we keep our current donors and current friends engaged,” Riley said.

Riley also said that the museum is coming up with new ideas to reel in more members. For example, the museum hosted the Green City Market indoors for the first time this year while both organizations cross promoted each other.

“We’re actually trying to think of connecting with new people, which forces us to think outside of the box,” Riley said. “We’re going to turn these challenging times into great opportunities.”

David Robertson, the president of the Association of College and University Museums and Galleries, agrees.

”We in the museum field are responsible for the preservation, study and display of cultural materials of lasting value," Robertson said.