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Closed for the pandemic, the Field Museum of Natural History hosted a socially distanced blood drive in its empty, cavernous halls.

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Shuttered natural history museums fight for survival amid COVID-19 ‘heartbreak’

Sciences COVID-19 reporting is supported by the Pulitzer Center.

A few months ago, retirement was the furthest thing from David Thomas’s mind. “Then the world went upside down,” recalls the archaeologist from the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. In March, the coronavirus pandemic forced the museum to close its doors. No more school groups thronging the interactive exhibit on color, no more corporate dinners or lines of international tourists waiting to pay $23 a head to marvel at gems and fossils. The museum’s income plummeted 60%.

Leaders first asked for early retirements. By early May, they had sliced the staff of 1100 by 20% and furloughed an additional 250 staff members. All other full-time employees now work 3 days a week, mostly from home. Thomas opted to retire early, along with four of the other 38 curators. “It was the right thing to do,” he says.

Around the world, natural history museums are shuttered and reeling. On Tuesday, the California Academy of Sciences announced it was furloughing or laying off 40% of its staff. “We will recover, but there is no doubt that we will be in some ways a different institution,” says Peter Roopnarine, a paleontologist there.

Museums’ reliance on revenue from ticket sales and events makes them among the first scientific institutions to feel the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. “I worry about the long-term health of all natural history museums and the collections that are in our sacred trust,” says Shannon Hackett, an ornithologist at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. “It will be very challenging for some museums to reopen at all,” adds Scott Cooper, who runs Drexel University’s Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia.

But the crisis is also spurring museums to adopt or expand practices that, though they may not restore lost revenue, are keeping the public engaged and research ticking: an online biodiversity contest, public discussions on Zoom, a webcam streaming captive corals. Curators are also expanding and refining digital collections that are accessible to both the public and homebound researchers. “We are seeing more changes in the museum industry at this moment than we could push people to make previously,” says Julie Stein, director of the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture at the University of Washington, Seattle, whose own institution has been devastated. It had opened a new building in October 2019 and was “headed for record-breaking revenue,” Stein says, but the entire campus shut down on 6 March.

Some museums, including the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., have dodged financial cliffs thanks to government support. The Natural History Museum, London, stayed afloat with emergency support from the U.K. government, but it furloughed half its staff until the end of June. Similarly, the Field Museum has thus far avoided layoffs thanks to a cash reserve and the federal paycheck protection program, says President and CEO Richard Lariviere. But 30% of the museum’s income comes from ticket sales and related activities, and his operation has already lost $17 million. Given that cases of COVID-19 have yet to peak in Illinois, Lariviere doubts the museum will open this summer, and he worries he will be forced to make layoffs.

Some university museums managed to avoid layoffs now, but may pay a price later if university budgets shrink. Harvard University’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology will likely not reopen as quickly as stand-alone museums, says Director Jane Pickering.

As they worry about the future, researchers are also distraught because they can’t do their work now. Travel restrictions have brought fieldwork to a screeching halt—and with it, the addition of more specimens to collections. The American Museum of Natural History alone has canceled 100 expeditions. And researchers can’t get into buildings to analyze existing collections. “We have been cut off from our collections, facilities, and colleagues,” says Anjali Goswami, a paleobiologist at the Natural History Museum, London.

One trend accelerated by the crisis could help: efforts to digitize natural history collections. At Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, staff working from home have been busy enhancing specimen records in the museumwide database. Many are adding latitude and longitude coordinates to millions of specimens thus far identified only by location names. “There’s a tremendous amount of data locked into collections,” says Kirk Johnson, director of the National Museum of Natural History, where detailed digital images of pressed plants in the herbarium allow researchers to scrutinize them from afar. “We are now shining the light on the dark data of museums.”

The once-packed rotunda of the American Museum of Natural History is deserted now.

D. Finnin/© American Museum of Natural History

Rebecca Albright, a coral biologist at the California Academy of Sciences, is studying the mysteries of coral spawning, which only one other research team has been able to manage in a lab setting. Recently, Albright identified just the right conditions, including water temperature and lighting that re-create changing day length and the cycling of the Moon, to get the coral to reproduce in the lab. When she learned that she couldn’t be in the museum when a coral was due to spawn, she and her colleagues set up an infrared webcam. “We never set up a camera before because we didn’t need to,” she says.

The livestreaming camera allowed them to catch spawning in the act on Earth Day—and also made a big splash on the web. “If we had missed this, we would have had to wait a whole year.” Albright says. The corals now have 1.6 million followers. (Video has its limits: One graduate student, eager for a close-up view of the coral life cycle, retrieved coral larvae and installed them in his home aquarium.)

Other scientists have refocused their research on the pandemic itself. Roopnarine previously studied how nature recovered from mass extinctions. Now, he is repurposing his computer models of ecosystem recovery to evaluate how various employment schemes may get economies back on track as lockdowns ease. “Our work has never been more relevant than it is now,” he says.

Many see the pandemic as an opportunity for change. “I’m doing more public programs than ever—in virtual formats,” says Sabrina Sholts, a biological anthropologist at the National Museum of Natural History. “Communicating science has never been more important,” given the pushback in some quarters against evidence-based decision-making.

The Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History was ahead of the curve when it created “Outbreak,” an exhibit about pandemics, 2 years ago.

James Di Loreto, Lucia RM Martino, and Fred Cochard/Smithsonian Institution

To engage the public in research, the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County and the California Academy of Sciences in April enlisted thousands of citizen scientists in a global biodiversity effort called the City Nature Challenge. Participants gathered thousands of images of birds, insects, and other wildlife in more than 250 cities to help researchers study urban ecosystems.

The pandemic itself is inspiring new directions. Leonard Krishtalka, director of the University of Kansas Biodiversity Institute and Natural History Museum, wants to expand its focus to include microbes and viruses, which account for 95% of the planet’s biodiversity.

At the National Museum of Natural History, Sholts was already thinking along those lines when she pulled together a temporary exhibit inspired by the 2014 Ebola epidemic. “Outbreak,” which explores how pathogens spread between animals and people, opened 2 years ago. After COVID-19 erupted, the exhibit also moved online, with a digital version in half a dozen languages; a DIY kit has already been adapted in 41 countries and 30 U.S. states and territories.

“We are in the process of reinventing what natural history museums are for,” Johnson says, speaking by phone to a reporter as he walked past the darkened halls of the exhibit. “Museums can play a much more impactful role than they have in the past 50 years.”