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UT to Slash Memorial Museum Funding

Supporters search for alternate funding

By Mac McCann, Fri., Nov. 15, 2013

Texas Memorial Museum
Texas Memorial Museum
Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

The Texas Memorial Museum, which will celebrate its 75th anniversary in Jan­uary, faces a budget cut from UT-Austin of about $600,000 – roughly 75% of its current total budget.

Officially scheduled to take effect on Sept. 1, 2014, the cuts will likely force the museum to eliminate its outreach programs, its public events, and most of its staff, which currently includes 11 full-time employees as well as a few paid docents. The museum is currently open seven days a week – once the cuts take effect, it will likely remain open only five days a week.

For the present, admission is free and the museum welcomes more than 85,000 visitors a year – it's a local as well as a state institution, well-known for its exhibits on prehistoric life, evolution, rocks and minerals, and wildlife, with a uniquely Texan approach, often listing the specific Texas county where an item was discovered.

But as museum director Edward Theriot says, "The exhibits are just one of the things we do." The museum and its staff put significant emphasis on their educational programs and outreach, annually training more than 350 educators, who in turn teach some 20,000 students each year. They also create curriculum guides for teachers touring the museum with their students. And through a program called Museum Express, the staff visits area classrooms, presents fossils and rocks, and discusses geology and biology with students.

The museum also hosts a variety of events throughout the year, such as Darwin Day (celebrating Charles Darwin's birthday) and Fright, a Halloween event that this year attracted 2,000 visitors. The museum plans to continue current programs and events to the extent possible, until the budget cuts actually take effect. However, Theriot notes, "We're certainly not starting any new programs."

According to Lee Clippard, the director of communications for the College of Natural Sciences, the overall budget of the Texas Memorial Museum to date has been somewhere around $800,000, with about $600,000 of that coming directly from the College of Natural Sciences. Clippard recognizes that "there are no easy choices here," but says that the college's budget "has been pretty much in stasis and not going to be increasing." The cuts to the Texas Memorial Museum, he says, have been the most significant budget reductions the college has undertaken, because Natural Sciences Dean Linda Hicke wants to make sure the budget is available for recruiting and retaining the best faculty, as well as for the college's undergraduate education program.

Gary Susswein, the UT-Austin director of media relations, says that each college at the university has authority over its own budget, and the decision to cut museum funding was made specifically by the College of Natural Sciences. However, Susswein does note that the situation is reflective of the university's budget overall, which has been essentially flat for five years. He also says that state funding has been cut over the last decade, and the administration doesn't plan on raising tuition in the future.

Theriot and museum supporters are currently exploring alternative funding, and Theriot is especially looking for donors. While some have suggested simply implementing an admission charge, that's unlikely. "We're certainly going to look into that, but it's not the easy answer that some people think it would be," Theriot says. "Believe me, if charging would just take care of it, we'd have done it a long time ago."

Theriot says the costs of implementing admission fees offset the benefits, and most museums that do charge admission frequently change exhibits to keep the community interested – and the turnstiles churning. Changing exhibits requires a significant amount of time, effort, and money, which – due to the cuts – the museum won't have. Additionally, Theriot fears that attendance would decline if the museum is no longer free – and head counts of those benefited is especially important to potential philanthropists.

Case in point: Early in November, Tim Klatt was visiting the museum with his two young children, to see the "dinosaur bones and rocks," as one of his kids explained. Klatt brings his children to the museum a couple times a year, and if the museum charged admission fees, he says, he likely wouldn't visit nearly as often.

The museum receives $108,000 annually from the state, and an additional $40,000 or so from donations and gift shop profits. To respond to the reduced funding, the museum will likely only employ three full-time employees: a security guard, a gift shop manager and a third person in charge of essentially everything else. Theriot says that the gift shop, beyond covering its own budget, generates profits for the museum – so there would be no benefit to cutting it. While the museum itself will likely stay the same in content, he says, the outreach programs and events will end, and he's frankly worried about the museum's future. "If nothing else is done, the museum will likely deteriorate both physically and in terms of intellectual and academic content and value." Theriot himself will lose his museum director position, and return full-time to being a professor of molecular evolution.

As bleak as the institutional future appears, the employees who will lose their jobs are in an especially difficult position. Theriot notes, "The dollar amount is what everybody wants to go to – but now there's 11 people working, and [after the cuts] there will only enough money to employ three, maybe four, people."

The museum's exhibits designer, John Maisano, and its biodiversity educator, Laura Keffer, will likely be laid off next September. Maisano is a working sculptor, but says he largely depends upon his income from the museum, where he has worked for 13 years. Keffer, who's pregnant, says she's "definitely concerned" about her future. Keffer began working at the museum while earning her geology degree from UT. Upon graduating in 2004, she was offered a full-time job there. Keffer echoes Maisano, who says, "For all of us, this is so much more than a job. We love reaching out to teachers, students, family, and the community as a whole." While Theriot, Maisano, and Keffer all recognize that these are difficult times, Maisano says the news of the cuts "sort of blindsided all of us."

But the cuts, Maisano insists, won't prevent the museum from offering the best possible experience to its guests during the coming year. "We don't want to make the community suffer," he tells me. "We want to go out on a high note."

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