Changes will cope with declining attendance
without compromising impact for visitors
HAYS, KS -- Plagued by the same declining attendance that has been experienced at museums and other attractions nationwide since the 9-11 terrorist attacks, Fort Hays State University's Sternberg Museum of Natural History will make changes in its operational structure.
Dr. Edward H. Hammond, FHSU president, and Dr. Jerry Choate, museum director, announced the changes, which will take effect in June, after personally meeting this morning with the museum staff.
"It is important for us to emphasize that the hours the museum is open will not change, and there will be no reduction in educational programs or exhibits," President Hammond said. He said no cuts would be made in the staff for the educational programs or the staff for development and maintenance of the exhibits.
"Attendance has fallen from a peak of 148,848 in fiscal year 2001 when the tremendously popular 'Sue' exhibition visited the Sternberg, to 32,189 in fiscal year 2003 and now just 14,873 in the first half of fiscal year 2004," the president said. "The declining attendance has caused the museum to operate in the red for the past two years, and with the university's budget already stressed by a downturn in the economy and a corresponding reduction in state funding, we could not allow that trend to continue."
President Hammond said the operational changes, scheduled for June, would not require any reductions of service in the Sternberg Museum's mission of educating the public and supporting the university through teaching and research. However, it will necessitate the elimination of three full-time jobs and a reordering of the responsibilities of the museum director, Dr. Jerry Choate.
Choate will now devote all his time to directing the museum. Previously, he split his time between the museum and teaching in the FHSU Department of Biological Sciences. Operation of the museum will depend in large measure on newly created student-manager positions, which is the model that has been used successfully for years in the university's Memorial Union. Dr. Choate will immediately begin the process of recruiting the student-managers.
Hammond and Choate both expressed thanks to the three employees whose positions are being eliminated. They are Greg Liggett, assistant director, Patricia Duffey, volunteer coordinator, and Lois Blakemore, manager of the Sternberg Store.
"Greg, Patricia and Lois have served the university and the museum well, and we regret the circumstances that have forced us to make this decision," Hammond said. "They will be missed."
Choate said several large natural history museums in the United States have closed their doors this year because of current budget problems, and many other museums have opted to make their operations leaner in order to survive.
"The Sternberg Museum of Natural History is unique (or nearly so) among university museums in that it receives most of its funding from gate receipts rather than its institution," Choate said. "This strategy worked fairly well before 9-11 and the precipitous drop in museum visitation that followed, and it may work well in the future. For now, the disruption caused by terrorism and its aftermath is having a major impact on the museum's budget."
Liggett was a student in geosciences at Fort Hays State University, and Choate hired him as a museum assistant. "He has been my right hand so far as administration of the museum is concerned ever since that time," Choate said. "In addition to helping with day-to-day management of the museum, budgetary analyses and public relations activities, he has assumed responsibility for marketing, most museum publications, and innumerable other essential administrative tasks. As we moved toward the Grand Opening of the new Sternberg Museum in about 1997, Greg was promoted to the position of assistant director of the museum and he has served as my indispensable assistant and colleague in that position. I am devastated that I am losing him."
Patricia Duffey began work for the museum in 1996 as an educational intern while completing her degree in biological sciences at FHSU. "I asked her to take responsibility for developing a volunteer program at the museum, and in 1997 I hired her as volunteer coordinator for the museum," Choate said. "Her performance in that position has been exceptional, and the museum's volunteer program is run on a higher professional level than those of most other institutions. Her departure will be a great loss."
Lois Blakemore began work just a couple years ago as a manager assigned to the admissions desk. In 2002, she was assigned responsibility for running the Sternberg Store. "Although she lacked previous retail experience, she quickly became adept at operating the store and managing the inventory," Choate said. "She has been an extremely effective and cooperative staff member, and she will be missed by all."
To illustrate the national trend, Choate noted an August 2003 report in the Orlando Sentinel that said Walt Disney Co. earnings were down as the Orlando theme parks struggled to win back tourists amid a lingering industrywide slump.
In addition, he cited an article in the journal BioScience by Andrew Suarez, University of Illinois, and Neil Tsutsui, University of California, Irvine, that stated: "Many biological collections, particularly those associated with museums and academic institutions, have recently experienced painful budgetary shortfalls. ... In many cases, these problems have forced staff cuts and reduced financial support for the curatorial work that is necessary for the survival and utility of these collections."
Choate added: "We will not allow the collections to be jeopardized at FHSU even if it means we must make tough decisions."
President Hammond said he was hopeful the new business model would bring annual attendance back to the 100,000 level.