Museum and Zoo


(This column was first published in the November 2, 2003 issue of The Buffalo News.)


There are two major natural history institutions in western New York: the Buffalo Zoo and the Buffalo Museum of Science. Both have long and honored histories.


The Science Museum was founded in 1861. Over the years since then it has built a national reputation for its extensive collections, its attractive dioramas, its service to the community and, perhaps most important, its initiation of scientific careers through its educational programs. At a recent reunion of so-called "museum kids", dozens of program graduates spoke movingly of this institution as the source and motivation for their intellectual lives.


The Buffalo Zoo began only a few years later, in 1875. It too grew rapidly to become a locus for the display of a wide range of live animals. Its educational and research programs are widely hailed by zoo administrators.


Today these two institutions stand in stark contrast. Both have struggled successfully through hard times, but today they are very different.


The Buffalo Zoo is flourishing under the impressive leadership of Donna Fernandes. New and exciting improvements are everywhere visible.


The Science Museum on the other hand is in a downward tailspin from which it is difficult to project recovery. With the museum already in troubles that began under his predecessor, three years ago David Chesebrough was appointed president. I was captured by his presentation that won him the appointment. But, despite constant repetition of those same glowing projections since then, his tenure here has produced something very different.


Curators are the scientific leaders of a museum. Gone or on their way out today are the curators of zoology, botany, andgeology, as well as the registrar and the collections manager. Remaining are a part-time anthropologist and a director of science. As if that were not bad enough, one curator's offer to continue his services unpaid was rejected.


Gone are the exhibit staff and most of the educational division. Remarkable instructors like Bill Rogers were summarily fired even though in his case his salary was not paid by the museum. (He had rightly complained about an asbestos problem.)


Why is this happening? Firings have been based, not on what employees have to offer the museum, but whether they "share the director's vision." What is that vision? Despite rosy claims there are no coherent plans. Last week Chesebrough told a visitor that "his team is going to begin formulating them next week." This after years of advice by highly-paid consultants.


The predictable result: everything is closing down. The museum and its associated Tifft Nature Preserve are shuttered many weekdays. The popular Allegany State Park program is also shut down. Tifft will close completely for part of the winter. The museum gift shop is curtained off. Endowment-supported lecture programs have been cancelled.


But now we have a new and attractive computer-based astronomy exhibit - prepared by David Hartley of First Hand Learning and the now-fired Rogers. It is indeed engaging but it stands alone. There are no scientifically qualified people there to answer inquiries like, "What does that mean?" or "How can I find out more about this?" One person who asked for identification of a planet was directed to a field guide.


I do not speak against such computer demonstrations, but I do suggest that they are like those you find today on websites. Before this you could take those wonderful beginnings farther at this museum. No longer can you do so.


Finally, what should be done? I suggest two things: wake up the museum board to its responsibilities and replace the museum's entire administrative team.


We need another Donna Fernandes to clean up this terrible mess.-- Gerry Rising