Carnegie Museum of Natural History's new focus on revenue, customers

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The Carnegie Museum of Natural History's new focus on programs, exhibits and research to generate more public interest and revenues has been unsettling to some researchers and museum staff.

But museum officials say they are confident they are headed in the right direction.

"We're going forward, and we want our research efforts to support the mission of the museum," said David Hillenbrand, interim president of the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh -- the parent organization for the natural history museum, the Carnegie Museum of Art, the Carnegie Science Center and the Andy Warhol Museum.

On Thursday, Mr. Hillenbrand along with Ann Metzger and Ron Baillie, the co-directors of the Carnegie Science Center who also are serving until year's end as interim co-directors of the natural history museum, explained museum finances and the new strategy to heighten public interest and revenues and maintain the museum's collection of 22 million specimens, fossils and artifacts.

While the natural history museum is financially solvent, it has been running a deficit offset by borrowing from the cash flow of the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh, whose board of trustees wants to eliminate the deficit within four years.

The new research mission will revolve around its newly created Center for Biodiversity and Ecosystems, which will use the museum's collections and new research to better understand and manage ecosystems, especially in the mid-Appalachian Region and upper Ohio Valley. Another research focus is its new Center of Evolutionary Studies.

The museum also has offered voluntary separation packages to museum curators who meet a certain threshold of age and years of service. Mr. Hillenbrand would not discuss the status of individual curators.

The goal is to develop "a more cohesive team rather than a bunch of individual researchers pursuing topics of their own interests," Mr. Baillie said. Those who continue with personal topics will be required to acquire 100 percent funding for their research.

Historically, Ms. Metzger said, "researchers pursued topics of individual interest funded by the wealthy," as was the case with the natural history museum. "That's no longer the model. The natural history museum contains a wealth of information about our ecosystem management and habitats in crisis, and the impacts of climate change. These are issues of social relevance" that can be topics of museum research.

Museum officials visited museums that pursued that strategy successfully and followed recommendations from a consultant who recommended an even more aggressive approach.

For now, the museum is seeking to hire a director of science and research to help implement the new strategy. It also is seeking a new president of Carnegie Museums to replace Mr. Hillenbrand, which could occur by April. Then the board of trustees will seek a new director to replace Samuel Taylor, who left the position in September 2012That could occur by the end of next summer.

The strategy also includes more popular traveling exhibits and public programs, classes and lectures.

George Sparks, president and CEO of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, said he began implementing a similar strategy nine years ago with success. The museum is increasing revenues with no debt, he said.

Its new museum will open in February, with a strong emphasis on customers.

"If you worry about customers, things will work out well. If you worry about scientists or internal things, generally you are not very successful," he said. "I was impressed by the [Carnegie museum] team that came here. They were passionate and seemed headed in the right direction. I was very encouraged."

David Templeton: dtempleton@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1578


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