It's Not So Easy for a Broke Museum to Sell Its Stuff
Field Museum an example of the struggles cultural institutions face
By Ruth Brown, Newser Staff
Posted May 6, 2013 6:28 PM CDT
Updated May 11, 2013 6:25 AM CDT
Bill Simpson, collections manager of fossil vertebrates at Chicago's Field Museum, dusts the teeth of the Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton known as Sue.   (AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato)

(Newser) – The Chicago Field Museum—perhaps best known as the home of Sue, the largest T. Rex skeleton ever discovered—is $5 million in debt, thanks to the recession and endowment-dinging stock market slumps. So when is it OK to start selling off dinosaur bones? NPR takes a look at the murky ethical territory many struggling cultural institutions face using the Field Museum as example. In 2004, the museum auctioned off more than 30 George Catlin paintings, earning it $15.5 million, the Chicago Tribune reported at the time.

Such a move is generally considered kosher in the museum world so long as the proceeds are used to acquire new pieces or care for existing ones, which is what the Field Museum has done. But the Tribune last month reported that the museum's decision to use some of the money to pay salaries of some staff who tend to the collections—and to sell its final four Catlin paintings—has rankled some. Part of the problem: People bequeath items and collections to museums expecting them to stay there forever. If word gets out it's selling off works, donors might be dissuaded from handing over their triceratops skeletons. "It makes donors in the future fear for the security of the things they leave to the organization," says the co-founder of the University of Chicago's Cultural Policy Center.

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Showing 3 of 15 comments
May 11, 2013 11:21 PM CDT
It looks like they are trying to generate revenue from mulitple sources. I couldn't tell if they had programs like "Night at the Museum." I know, its cliche but our local museums have old fashioned lock-ins where kids bring a sleeping bag and a day pack and spend about 18 hours in an intensive overnight stay. It includes going through the entire complex and back spaces, seeing a movie, sleeping in a not so spooky area, having a breakfast then go home. There is also summer camp at the museum.
May 11, 2013 7:22 PM CDT
" stock market slumps" ? really ? has anyone else noticed how good the stock markets been doing the last few months ? come on , gotta have a better excuse than that !
May 11, 2013 6:44 PM CDT
What's the "ethical issue"? As long as the museum in question doesn't promise not to sell the items as a condition of accepting them, then I see no issue whatsoever.