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Edward Theriot: The TT Interview

The director of the Texas Memorial Museum on why the institution's upcoming 75th anniversary will be bittersweet and why massive budget cuts currently planned for the museum are more than a local problem.

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About a month ago, Edward Theriot, the director of the Texas Memorial Museum at the University of Texas at Austin, learned that he needed to brace for a massive cut — including his own position — that is scheduled to hit the museum next September.

The museum, which focuses on natural history and is part of the Texas Natural Science Center, a research unit contained within the university’s College of Natural Sciences, will celebrate its 75th anniversary in January. But it is currently on track to be a bittersweet occasion.

In less than a year, under current plans, the free museum, which currently attracts 80,000 to 90,000 visitors annually, will have to survive solely on special item funding from the Legislature and revenue it generates from its gift shop — a projected combined annual total of about $150,000. The center's currently budget is more than $840,000.

As a result, the staff will be cut from 11 to three. Plans for a new exhibit called “The Utility of Evolution” and to create a video guide that visitors could access on their smartphones have been indefinitely put on hold.

“What is happening with the Texas Memorial Museum is really reflective of the unfortunate reality of UT’s budget situation,” university spokesman Gary Susswein said, adding that the university is projecting flat budgets for at least the next five years.

He noted that philanthropy is increasingly vital to keep the university running, and said the administration hoped the museum might be able to find outside funds. But the university, he said, needs to focus its resources elsewhere.

“Even though the Legislature increased our funding this session, we haven’t made up for the funding that was cut in previous sessions,” Susswein said. “In addition, tuition will remain flat for the time being, so we are focused on using the money we do have for our core mission of supporting students and supporting faculty.”

Theriot spoke with the Tribune on Sunday in his office. He talked about the educational services the museum provides, its value to science teachers statewide and why the cuts to the museum are more than just a problem for the Austin community.

The following is an abridged and edited transcript of the conversation.

Texas Tribune: Is the museum’s current situation just a local problem?

Edward Theriot: I’ll start with explaining the Texas Natural Science Center, because the answer to the question really lies there, and the significance of our program really lies there.

The Texas Natural Science Center is an organized research unit in the College of Natural Science. We’re not an official department. We’re a place where several different departments can interact. We maintain large research collections. Up until this summer, we were responsible for 5 to 6 million fossils. We also have, roughly, a like number of biological specimens. [This summer, the paleontological collection was cut entirely and picked up by the Jackson School of Geosciences.]

We do research on these organisms. We keep the specimens as vouchers for the research. The specimens themselves also become a record of Texas biological diversity. I often compare the collections to a library of books written in a foreign language that we’re still translating. It’s not just having the fish, but if you have a fish and you want to know something about a past environment, you might be able to examine that fish and look at how that changes from fish to fish over time. That tells you what was going on in the environment.

That’s why I say there are books that are still being translated, because every new technology that comes along that is relevant to these things — different kinds of DNA technology — allow us to go back to these collections and make more and better use of them.

So that’s the intellectual core of the museum. It is what really ties the museum and the Texas Natural Science Center to the rest of the university, because the collections support graduate research in these fields. The museum is, if you will, the public connection with those collections and the intellectual activity of the university.

When we redid the museum extensively in 2002 and 2003, we became the museum of what we do, not the museum of what we have. We tell the stories — not just cool stories of things like the Texas Pterosaur — of the people who found them, the research that went on and how that process of science happens.

We also do a lot of teacher professional development. And we have programs that go out into local area classrooms. All of those things bring the best of biological sciences to the public.

TT: That would seem to fit on the state’s push for more science, technology, engineering and mathematics education.

Theriot: Why are there museums at all? We believe that aside from the “edutainment” component, museums inspire young kids to become scientists. We think we have a very important role in that. We think we can kill two birds with one stone, because an issue UT faces is getting people to understand its science and value its science. We’ve been doing that.

By reaching out to teachers and helping STEM education in the country, we also help make faculty grants more competitive.  We have faculty who are asking to participate with us, and we work with graduate students in our programs to train them in how to work with teachers and what teachers need.

If you want a K-12 teacher to teach evolution better, you can’t make them evolutionary biologists. They don’t have time for that. You need to give them specific tools, specific skills sets, a specific set of knowledge that addresses specific standardized criteria that they have to teach. 

TT: Is there much the museum can do with three people? Will it still be possible to change exhibits?

Theriot: If the museum is on its own, exhibit changes are absolutely out of the question. 

If the museum were partnered with a unit who, for whatever reason, said it was in their best interest to change exhibits, they might or might not have some funding to do that. That’s why it’s important to say “under this scenario,” because different scenarios have somewhat different outcomes.

If the museum is by itself, staffing is almost always going to be professional gift shop manager, security guard and one other person. And that one other person is going to have to take care of everything else the museum does. Obviously, they won’t be able to do everything else the museum does. Priorities will have to be made. [Theriot said that the center's collections — for now — are not being cut, and that informal talks are under way that may result in them being moved to a new institute focused on biological diversity.]

TT: You were planning an exhibit focused on how the theory of evolution is used in science. Do you think these cuts have anything to do with the state’s uneasy relationship with evolution?

Theriot: I don’t think so at all. I see restructuring and reorganization going on everywhere in the university.

But it definitely speaks to the need. When we put one of our teacher professional development programs online, we don’t even market them. And in a couple of weeks, they are full with a waiting list, because teachers are out there and they are hungry. Our vision has been to become the Texas source for teachers for biological sciences.

It’s clear that a lot of K-12 teachers don’t have the training that they would like in science in order to teach science. It just gets harder every day, because science is advancing so fast, biological sciences in particular. There is a need, I think, for what we do. People who believe in the museum and what we’re doing and agree with that are trying to help us find support to continue that. We want it to grow, not go away.

TT: Are you hopeful that you can turn this situation around?

Theriot: I’m hopeful, but I don’t know how realistic that is. But I am hopeful.

I’m grateful that we have a few months to work on this. We don’t have until Aug. 31. We have some very talented staff who are key to some of the things we’d like to do. A couple of them have already gotten interviews elsewhere. I can’t tell them, “Oh, just wait,” because I don’t know. I honestly don’t know what will happen. I do know myself and a number of other people are going to fight to make something positive happen.

I have some optimism that we’ll have some degree of bridge funding to put together a full plan. What I don’t think we’ll be able to do is year in and year out raise $300,000 to $400,000 through philanthropy. That’s a huge task, and I don’t think that can happen.

TT: Were you surprised by the cut?

Theriot: Part of my job is to always imagine what’s the worst that can happen. I wish I could say we’re the very first university natural history museum to undergo something like this, but we’re not.

I do feel like we have done a lot to address particular needs and goals in the college and beyond, so I am perhaps surprised by the suddenness. But overall, I'm not.

Frankly, the museum gets all the attention. It’s hard to educate people that it’s a little part of what we do. It’s all these other things that could be lost that frankly, in the long run, have the greatest value to society.

It will be a tragedy if the museum is gone, but it will be a loud tragedy. The real tragedy, the deeper tragedy, will be if this teacher professional development, this connection between K-12 sciences and biological sciences, in particular, at the university gets lost. Not just for what’s lost, but for what could be.

The cost of lost opportunity, I call it.

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