Researchers at the Natural History Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen have made major discoveries about human migrations and the impacts of climate change.

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Reorganization sparks turmoil at Copenhagen’s research powerhouse museum

Over the past decade, the 40 researchers at the Natural History Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen have published more than 100 papers in Nature and Science, putting it among the world’s top research museums. But budget pressures are forcing a reorganization that will split museum research from curation and outreach. The museum’s scientists are dismayed, and several of the most prominent group leaders say they may leave.

Previously, the museum was its own department within the University of Copenhagen. But last month, the university announced that, as of 1 January 2019, the museum will be downsized, becoming a unit within the biology department. Roughly half of the 40 researchers will remain part of that unit; they will give up some of their research to focus on curation and outreach. The other half will become full faculty within the biology department—including the geologists and astrophysicists. These scientists will lose their affiliation with the museum and replace their curatorial roles with increased teaching duties.

Divorcing the scientists’ dual roles will curtail the fruitful ways that curation pollinates research, and vice versa, says Carsten Rahbek, who heads the museum’s Center for Macroecology, Evolution and Climate and who is slated to become a biology professor. (The center will move with him.) “The curation is driven by the research,” he says. “It’s not like a library where you go borrow a book and then go do cutting-edge research. If you don’t have a say in how [the collection] develops, in 2 or 3 years you won’t be able to use it anymore.”

The museum grew out of a 2001 merger of the university’s Botanical Garden, Botanical Museum and Library, Geological Museum, and Zoological Museum. The vision, says Eske Willerslev, who studies ancient DNA and heads the Centre for GeoGenetics at the museum, was to “create a prominent place where citizens could [find] the best researchers and look over their shoulders.” Research collaborations have since led to breakthrough discoveries about human migrations and the effects of climate change on biodiversity. Just last month, a team led by a museum glaciologist announced in Science Advances the discovery of a giant impact crater under Greenland’s ice sheet.

An iron meteorite displayed in the courtyard of the Natural History Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen helped inspire the discovery of a giant crater in Greenland.

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But the museum is under financial pressure. Although it will begin construction next year on a 950 million Danish kroner ($144 million) building to house state-of-the-art exhibits, the museum has run budget deficits in recent years. Last week, it laid off 17 people, including some research staff. Moving some of the researchers out of the museum unit and into the biology department—and boosting their teaching loads—will help shore up finances, says Museum Director Peter Kjærgaard.

Kjærgaard adds that focusing the museum’s resources on curation and outreach will allow it to make the collections more widely available for researchers, the public, even companies and nonprofits. John Renner Hansen, dean of the Faculty of Science at the university, says researchers who want to maintain their museum affiliation will have to do significant curation and outreach work. But he argues that the changes shouldn’t affect current collaborations. Labs and offices won’t move at all. “There are no physical changes, just a change of organization,” he says.

But the formal separation of the researchers from the museum is important, even if it is not physical, says Minik Rosing, a geochemist at the museum, who is also slated to become a professor in the biology department. “It’s a redefinition of what a museum is, and what it means,” he says. He, Rahbek, and Willerslev all say they are considering leaving the university if the plans go forward. “We would prefer to stay and support the museum, but if its mission changes so completely, we will have to go elsewhere,” Rosing says.

The separation is not only bad for the researchers; public outreach will also suffer, predicts Évelyne Heyer, who heads the department of eco-anthropology at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris. “It’s not enough to present the collections,” she says. “You have to teach the people what the collection can do.”