Amid budget fight, Illinois State Museum prepares to close

Eric Grimm (right) and Chris Widga look over fossils in the Illinois State Museum's collection. The museum is set to close Thursday.

Eric Grimm (right) and Chris Widga look over fossils in the Illinois State Museum's collection. The museum is set to close Thursday.

Justin L.Fowler/The State Journal-Register

Last week paleoecologist Eric Grimm, the director of science at the Illinois State Museum in Springfield, rented an 8-meter-long truck, bought $500 worth of lumber, and built temporary shelves in the back. Then, with the help of his wife and former coworkers, he loaded his cargo: roughly 30 sediment cores drilled from lake bottoms.

The cores, which hold pollen grains, minerals, and other clues that help researchers reconstruct past environments, had been stored at the museum where Grimm has worked for 28 years. But the museum is scheduled to close on 1 October as the result of a tense budget standoff between the state’s Democrat-led General Assembly and its Republican governor. So Grimm is moving his collection to the University of Minnesota’s National Lacustrine Core Repository (LacCore) in Minneapolis. And he’s retiring from his post at the museum—with a certain sense of dismay.

“It’s a travesty,” Grimm says of the political stalemate that has dominated Illinois for months, and the consequences for the museum. “I think it’s political corruption and malevolent anti-intellectualism.”

Grimm isn’t the only one mourning the imminent closure of the 138-year-old Illinois State Museum and four related sites. Researchers know the museum as the home to the largest collection of mastodon fossils in the world, databases used by international scientists, and artifacts from native Midwestern tribes. Its collection includes some 13.5 million objects, including 8.5 million anthropological and archaeological artifacts. The museum also hosts a relatively small but active research program, run by a staff of 10 curators and scientists.

“The museum has a continuous legacy of very strong research that’s been highly beneficial to the state of Illinois, as well as to the region and the nation,” says Stephen Jackson, an ecologist at the U.S. Department of the Interior Southwest Climate Science Center at the University of Arizona in Tucson. “Sadly that is all being brought to an end.”

The Illinois Department of Natural Resources, the agency that oversees the museum, announced the pending closure this past June, after the politicians failed to agree on a new budget. Scientists and the public spoke out, writing op-eds to local papers, signing a petition, and joining a Save the Illinois State Museum Facebook page, but the agency moved forward.

Since then, six of the museum’s 10 science staff, including Museum Director Bonnie Styles and Grimm, have announced their retirements. Overall, the museum has 68 staffers; unionized employees will keep working until a court case on the matter is settled, but those who aren’t in a union will be laid off. All of the museum’s human resources and fiscal department employees were let go 2 weeks ago.

The administration of the state’s new Republican governor, Bruce Rauner, says the museum system has to close because legislators passed a budget bill that would leave the state with a $4 billion debt by the end of the year. Rauner vetoed the budget and proposed to cut a total of $400 million from various agencies and organizations across the state, including the museum. The move to shutter the museum sites will save the state $4.8 million, according to the governor’s office. (Last year 387,000 people visited the museum, generating $33 million in tourism dollars, a museum board member told the State Journal-Register.)

In a bid to keep the museum open, in August state legislator Andy Manar (D) pushed a bill through the state Senate that requires the museum to stay open. But its prospects are uncertain in the state House, where it would need a 71-vote supermajority to be enacted. Even if the bill became law, however, it doesn’t include any funding for the museum.

As the closing date approaches, researchers are preparing to lose access to collections, and for other disruptions. For example, Jackson, who grew up near the museum, says he regularly uses the museum’s Neotoma Paleoecology Database, a catalog of past climate data that helps validate current climate models. It includes pollen data supplied by Grimm and the museum, supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF). Although the database will remain available, because it is hosted by computers outside the museum, the flow of pollen data from the museum would stop, Grimm says. And if the museum remains closed for a long period, “there won’t be anybody doing research … when this current round of NSF grants run out,” he says. “The research is dying, it’s destroyed.”

Museum curators also help maintain databases cataloging archaeological records, and have been undertaking a project to document the last 20,000 years of the region’s landscape, an effort that could help answer how and where the mastodons died. And it has several agreements with other organizations that could wither as a result of the closure. One is to hold and curate funerary objects for the Peoria Tribe, which now resides in Oklahoma. Federal law requires that the tribe have access to those items, which would be impossible when the museum closes. 

For now, Grimm and his colleagues are continuing to pack up their boxes. Soon, he’ll be driving to Minnesota to sort his sediment cores and preparing to move from Illinois. “I can’t even stand to look at it,” Grimm says of the museum closure. “You watch the whole thing you helped build be brought down basically because of politics.”

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