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Science director Eric Grimm talks with visitors at the threatened Illinois State Museum.
Credit: Doug Carr, Illinois State Museum

Illinois science museum is pawn in budget fight

Paleoecologist Eric Grimm couldn’t even imagine an electronic database for his field when he joined the Illinois State Museum in 1987 as a postdoc. But over the past 2 decades, Grimm, now the museum’s director of sciences, has helped to create and curate exactly such a resource. It’s given scientists around the world critical cybertools to catalog and analyze how plants and animals have responded to changes in global climate going back 5 million years.

The Neotoma Paleoecology Database and Community—which takes its name from one of nature’s premier accumulators, the pack rat—is one of many research projects based at the Springfield-based museum, which houses extensive collections showcasing the natural, cultural, and artistic history of the state. But next month the 138-year-old museum and its four branches may be forced to close, the innocent victim of a budget fight between the state’s new Republican governor and the Democratic legislators who control the General Assembly.

Last month, the legislature passed a budget for the fiscal year that began on 1 July that would have left the state with a shortfall of $3 billion to $4 billion. Governor Bruce Rauner said such a deficit budget was unacceptable and proposed some $400 million in cuts to dozens of state agencies and programs. The museum was a tiny item on that hit list, with its closure saving the state an estimated $4.8 million. The larger budget fight has continued into the new fiscal year, with no end in sight.

Researchers are outraged over the proposal to shutter the museum. “It is simply startling that a state government in the United States would … deny its citizens the opportunity to learn about the history and prehistory of their own state,” says paleoclimatologist Glen MacDonald of the University of California, Los Angeles. Such cuts are especially troubling, MacDonald says, at a time when the world is condemning the destruction of priceless museum collections and archaeological sites in Syria.

“The Illinois State Museum is deeply respected in the scientific community for the expertise of its curators and for its irreplaceable collection of archaeological, cultural, and paleontological artifacts,” says paleoecologist Jack Williams of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, who has used the Neotoma database to explore vegetation change over the past 20,000 years on a continental and global scale. “The museum is also, of course, a gateway for students to discover the wonder and beauty of science.”

MacDonald is one of some 20 scientists who have submitted written comments in advance of a public hearing today by a state commission responsible for vetting the governor’s proposal. In the meantime, the museum has already begun to prepare for the worst, returning borrowed objects in their exhibitions and recollecting lent material.  

That retrenching has already prevented Angela Perri, a zooarchaeologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, from expanding on a remarkable finding she made after finding a box at the Illinois museum labeled “puppy burial.” The contents were actually that of a bobcat, placed in a sacred funeral mound by Native Americans some 2000 years ago.

The public has until 22 July to submit comments to the state commission, which must submit a recommendation to the governor before he can act. And the idea that the museum could close is hard for Grimm to fathom. “Every day I walk down the halls and I see shelves and shelves of mastodon bones,” he says. “It’s exciting! And that’s what museums do: Kids come in and then get excited over science.”