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. (Read more Chicago Field Museum stories.)