America's oldest natural history institution has no intention of going the way of the dinosaur, but its nearly two centuries in existence have been almost as bumpy as the hide of a Carnotaurus.
The Academy of Natural Sciences, battered by budget problems, is crafting a multimillion-dollar plan to refurbish its exhibits, replenish its coffers and reinvigorate its staff in time for the venerable museum's 200th birthday in 2012.
Undoubtedly a tall order, but it's in keeping with the rule that applies to the millions of plants and animals in its esteemed collection: Adapt or die.
"It does need money to meet its operational needs; it does need money to grow, but it is not failing," said William Brown, the academy's new president. "It is not going to fail."
The academy was founded in 1812 by a group of intellectuals with the progressive idea of presenting a secular and scholarly view of the world. Though visitors know it for the dinosaur skeletons, behind the scenes exist myriad research projects and a collection of 17 million fossil, plant and animal specimens including Thomas Jefferson's fossils and plants collected by Lewis and Clark.
In 2006, it came as a shocker to many in the outside world when the academy sold more than 18,000 specimens from its renowned mineral and gem collection to a private dealer for $1 million. The deal made front-page headlines and infuriated scientists, who considered it akin to pillaging.
Brown said the academy's precarious position is far from unique in an age of increasing competition for philanthropic dollars, research money and the public's leisure time.
"I would say our difference is that we show off our flaws with exuberance," he said with a laugh. "We have tended to be extremely good at publicly disclosing the worst things going on, and that's OK, but most other (museums) don't do it."
Upon his arrival in January, Brown halted the proposed sale of 7,300 exotic metals and crystals donated by William S. Vaux 125 years ago, when Philadelphia was considered the cradle of mineralogy. Now, curators are planning to bring the historic collection into public view for the first time in many decades.
"They've never been able to take the assets they started out with &
assets we'd all give our eye teeth for &
and realize them as much as they could," said Dr. Hans-Dieter Sues, associate director for research and collections at Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, and vice president of the Natural Science Collections Alliance.
A five-year plan approved in June calls for doubling the current $60 million endowment and making roughly $30 million in improvements to exhibits, infrastructure and research labs. It also includes hiring new curators and scientists and expanding its environmental work through Asia (China and North Korea are specifically being discussed) to Eastern Europe.
Brown has a reputation as a skillful fundraiser and is credited with similarly rescuing the Bishop Museum in Honolulu where he previously worked. He said he believes he can do the same in Philadelphia.
"This is an amazing institution with a great history," he said. "If we do it right, there's no reason we can't be as good as anybody in the world."
The institution is all too familiar with money troubles: It struggled with a "wholly inadequate" endowment as far back as 1900, Sues said.
"It started out as a number of scholars basically supporting the whole thing, but at the end of 19th century, it was kind of left to its own devices," he said.
Despite recent staff cutbacks and budget deficits, academy scientists continue research around the globe in hot topics of climate change, biodiversity, water quality and invasive species.
In 2006, academy paleontologist Ted Daeschler and his colleagues made world news with the discovery of a fossil called an evolutionary missing link from fish to land animals. This year, scientist Clyde Goulden received Mongolia's highest foreigner honor for his decade of groundbreaking ecological research there.
"Environmental issues, in which the academy has a strong track record, are a particularly good opportunity for natural history museums to grow," Sues said.
"It's an issue that often comes with an agenda one way or the other," he said of environmental research, "but museums don't have an ax to grind and can be the most credible conveyors of information to the public."
The kind of growth that Brown and his colleagues envision takes much money, so the academy is planning a private, foundation and corporate fundraising campaign beginning with the 100th birthday in November of Ruth Patrick, a pioneer of environmental research and water ecology who has been at the academy since 1933.
Stiff competition for donation dollars means cultivating new prospects through such initiatives as annual fundraising dinners, special appeals, luncheons and dinners, receptions and trips for donors. It also means offering naming rights and marketing to an audience beyond the uber-wealthy about bestowments and endowment gifts, Brown said.
He said the museum wants to make its iconic dinosaurs and wildlife dioramas more interactive and informative with high-tech gadgets such as smart phones, and showcase selections from its unrivaled collection of bird specimens (many from John James Audubon himself), fossils and mollusks. Many have never been publicly displayed.
With 2012 fast approaching, and a long and expensive to-do list, Brown doesn't delude himself about the magnitude of the work ahead.
"I'm not saying any of this is easy. It's tough," he said. "But its for a really good set of causes and objectives. ... We have so many important contributions to make."
America's oldest natural history institution dusts itself off for 2012