It happened slowly.
A curator would leave for a more prestigious position or retire and, if the Carnegie Museum of Natural History couldn't quickly find a replacement, the money set aside for the position was absorbed into the larger budget. Getting the money back would be a struggle.
Over the past decade, the Oakland museum has lost so many scientists that one in every five positions on director Samuel Taylor's curatorial staffing chart is listed as "vacant." Numbering about 50 a decade ago, the scientific staff has shrunk to about 40 people. If the vacant positions aren't filled, experts say the museum risks an eroding image.
Patrons might perceive it as a warehouse for dusty specimens, rather than a cutting-edge scientific institution.
"It's been piece by piece, year by year, with each loss and each retirement being judged just on the immediate financial needs of the museum and not the big picture," said Taylor, who became director of the museum and its $13 million budget a year ago. "When I first looked at the organizational chart, all laid out in front of me, it really struck me to see all these vacancies."
"The biggest danger, both internally and externally, is how we're viewed," Taylor said. "A complacency falls into place that maybe this level of staffing is OK. But, obviously, it diminishes our ability to tell our story."
Curators are much like professors, holding similar degrees and making salaries averaging slightly more than $80,000 annually. They split their time among field expeditions, publishing the findings of those adventures in scientific journals and managing a small staff. They create and update museum exhibits and share discoveries with visitors.
Losing curators affects research grants coming in, a barometer of a natural history museum's scientific status.
Accounting for inflation, the museum brought in $665,558 from the National Science Foundation in 1999. The amount of funding has declined 32 percent over the past decade, to $455,046 last year.
"Funding agencies will not give money to an institution that isn't investing in its research," said Jody Martin, chief of the division of invertebrate studies at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, which also is struggling to balance its staffing while balancing its budget. "If you're not serious, why should they give you money?"
He compared declining curator numbers to a university cutting professors.
"Harvard could definitely save money by cutting half its faculty, but you have to ask, when does it stop being a university and start being something different?" he said. "It's easy to make these cuts, but at some point you lose the identity of who and what you are."
The 114-year-old Carnegie Museum of Natural History is a museum that not only displays its collections from the natural world, but constantly updates exhibits based on the findings of curators and scientific staff.
"The sheer size and diversity and reputation of collections places the Carnegie with the top museums, not just in the United States but worldwide," said Hans-Dieter Sues, associate director for research and collections at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. …