The director of the world's most visited museum will resign in protest of a planned reorganization that would separate the museum's scientific and educational roles. Robert Fri, who heads the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., said in a memo to his staff yesterday that he cannot commit to the proposed changes. He plans to step down by October.
The National Museum of Natural History is home to about one-quarter of the 425 Smithsonian scientists; its staff includes geologists, anthropologists, paleontologists, and systematic biologists. Many of these researchers have been up in arms for the past 2 months after the new Smithsonian secretary, Lawrence Small, proposed closing some research units and reorganizing science into several centers of excellence (ScienceNOW, 16 April and 7 May). The institution's educational activities, including its museum exhibits, would become a separate entity. Currently, scientists within the natural history museum have significant input into the design and content of museum exhibits and public programs; they worry that the museum's mission will be compromised by the planned separation.
Fri, who led the museum for 5 years, has reservations too. The coming months will require leaders committed to Small's plans, he wrote in his memo, and "I do not feel that I can make that commitment enthusiastically." In a prepared statement, Small paid tribute to Fri's contributions to the museum but had no comment about his reasons to resign. There's no word about Fri's replacement yet.
Museum staff were disappointed but not surprised by Fri's decision. "He has been a good manager, and he has brought stability that we had not had at the museum," says Smithsonian geologist Brian Huber. "But I think he's been cast aside [by the secretary] for some time now." Huber says researchers are sorry to see their main go-between to Small leave. Fri's departure "is just going to disrupt things even more," he says.