Edward Theriot

Photo Credit: Charlotte Carpenter | Daily Texan Staff

Six months after having its budget gutted, the Texas Memorial Museum is improving its financial situation, and attendance is slowly rising.

In September 2014, the University pulled funding for the Texas Natural Science Center, which included the Texas Memorial Museum, as part of a $600,000 budget cut. The center was essentially dismantled, leaving the Museum entirely financially independent, according to Edward Theriot, integrative biology professor and museum director.  

Today, the museum’s doors remain open as a result of outside funding, community outreach efforts and policy changes and despite a professional staff that’s less than half the size it was last year.

“We survived a massive budget cut, but we are not closed,” said Pamela Owen, associate director of the museum.

In addition to the museum, the Texas Natural Science Center also owned extensive paleontology and biology collections. As a result of the budget cut, the Jackson School of Geosciences and the Department of Integrative Biology took over the respective collections.

Despite the shift in ownership, specimens from the transferred collections are still on display at the museum. Owen said the exhibitions on display at the museum were not affected by the cuts.

“We still showcase specimens from those collections, so we’re the caretakers of them on exhibit,” Owen said.

Theriot said attendance and revenue were below projections for the first two months after the budget cut.

“As we went into the year, we were consistently low,” Theriot said. “It was concerning us, and what became apparent … was that people thought we were entirely closed.”

In the past several months, attendance has risen, although it’s still lower than what the staff had projected, Theriot said.

The museum is now running off $85,000 in private donations, a little over $108,000 in state funding and revenue from admissions and the museum’s gift shop.

“Fiscally this year, we are in good shape,” Theriot said.

The 84th Texas Legislature’s proposed House and Senate budgets would renew the state’s over $108,000 in funding for the 2016 and 2017 fiscal years.

Until September, the museum was free to the public. Although admission is still free to students and faculty with a valid University ID, the museum now charges members of the public a general admission fee of $3–$4, depending on age, to account for the budget cuts. The museum has made $42,000 in ticket sales since September, Owen said.

The museum also received $75,000 in private donations from the Stillwater Foundation, which has been used to host free special events. Museum senior administrative associate Laura Naski Keffer said the events, such as National Fossil Day and Texas Wildlife Day, have helped spread the word about the museum.

“It kept us doing things we did before the massive cut,” Naski Keffer said. “It’s really nice to provide free events. Here we are: We switched to an admissions policy, but we can still figure out a way to make free events to the public.”

The museum staff was downsized to from eleven full-time employees to four, as well as a part-time IT staff member and six work-study students. Since the cuts, Theriot works part time as the director and full time as a University professor.

Theriot said staff members who were let go as a result of the cut were given ample time to find other jobs. Other staff members retired.

“The hardest thing was telling the staff, frankly,” Theriot said. “The slightly silver lining in all of this is that we were told this was going to happen well in advance.”

The Texas Memorial Museum is the main exhibit hall of the Texas Natural Sciences Center. Faculty Council met Feb. 17 to addressed concerns regarding new ways to fund the museum.

Photo Credit: Zoe Davis | Daily Texan Staff

A recent budget cutting decision by the College of Natural Sciences would not only impact the budget of the Texas Memorial Museum but are instead targeted at the entire Texas Natural Science Center, which the museum is a part of.

According to its website, the Center works to create awareness and appreciation of biological diversity, especially in Texas. In addition to the museum, the Center oversees both vertebrate and non-vertebrate paleontology labs, as well as the Texas Natural History Collections. 

Edward Theriot, integrative biology professor and director of the Texas Memorial Museum, said the Center will be organized out of existence starting next fall. 

Theriot said different parts of the Center’s collection have already started moving to other colleges, including the paleontological collection, which moved to the Jackson School of Geosciences last fall. 

“What I have been told about the collections is as of the last discussion I had with [Linda Hicke, dean of the College of Natural Sciences], there was no plan at this time to cut the
operational funding for the collections,” Theriot said. “Technical, web and administrative support will become the responsibility of existing resources at the other entities.” 

Theriot said, as of right now, more than $600,000 will be cut from the Center’s budget starting next semester. Theriot said the center had an operational budget of over $1 million before the paleontological collection was moved. 

At the Faculty Council meeting last week, a resolution was passed that encourages the museum to find independent funding for its community outreach programs. 

William Beckner, mathematics professor and chair-elect of the Faculty Council, worked with the Faculty Council executive council to write the resolution. He said they wrote the resolution after Mona Medhy, cell and molecular biology associate professor, emailed him and asked Faculty Council to consider the museum’s situation.

Beckner said the goal of the resolution was to encourage the museum to look elsewhere for funding. 

“I recognize the financial constraints on the University’s operating budget,” Beckner said. “The goal was to support the museum but not to tell the University how to fund it.”

Medhy said she reached out to Beckner in order to promote discussion about potential solutions to the museum’s position. 

“My point was: Is there any way to help this museum financially, at least in the short term?” Medhy said. “I felt that it was important for our faculty, or anybody who is interested in this topic, to see what the University could provide besides relying simply on the College of Natural Sciences.”

Theriot said he appreciates support from the faculty, but the resolution did not change the museum’s financial situation. 

“Honestly, it puzzles me,” Theriot said. “It doesn’t mean anything to us because that’s what we’ve been working toward since October, when [Hicke] told me that we were being cut. My life and the museum’s life was the same the day before the Faculty Council resolution and the same the day after. It has had no effect whatsoever.”

Theriot said he is currently working on developing a business model to establish a new source of revenue for the museum. He said the museum’s general infrastructure will have to be adjusted to remain fiscally solvent.

“I think the museum and what it does and the services it provides are going to have to be rethought from the bottom up in order to get a good grasp on what sort of recurring funding we’ll have, which should come from admissions,” Theriot said. “The first thing we need to do is get it off of life support and get through this admissions phase, [and] then see where we can go from there.”

Because of a $600,000 budget cut in the College of Natural Sciences, Texas Memorial Museum is on the verge of letting go eight of its 11 employees. More than 1,750 people have signed a petition opposing the cut in an attempt to preserve the 75-year-old museum.

Correction: The original caption misstated the amount of the budget cut. The cut is $600,000.

Photo Credit: Eunice Ali | Daily Texan Staff

More than 1,750 people have signed a petition opposing the budget cut to the Texas Memorial Museum, which would cause eight of 11 employees to lose their jobs, according to the UT alumna Mary Newcomb, the petition’s founder.

In September, the College of Natural Sciences announced plans to cut approximately $600,000 from the Texas Natural Science Center, which includes the Texas Memorial Museum, according to Edward Theriot, director of the Natural Science Center. Currently, the Center’s total budget is $860,000.

“We will be able to make up some of the University’s cuts but not all of them,” Theriot said. “It will have a traumatic effect.”

Newcomb will be meeting with natural sciences dean Linda Hicke on Monday to raise concerns about the cut. 

“It seems that, if you’re cutting the museum funding back that far, you’re basically giving it a death sentence,” Newcomb said.

Newcomb, whose father was director of the museum from 1957-1978, said the budget cut would harm the important educational tools the natural history museum provides.

“It’s been an important resource for local school children and teachers, as well as students at the University studying paleontology, biology or art,” Newcomb said.

Newcomb said she is worried that, if budget cuts are implemented, exhibits will not be maintained as well.

Hicke was not available for comment, according to natural sciences spokesman Lee Clippard.

Clippard said larger state budget cuts over the last several years have made the museum difficult to fund. Clippard said the college wants to focus its funding on its undergraduate students, faculty and staff.

Louise Meeks, manager of the museum’s gift shop, said her job would most likely remain intact because the gift shop is self-funded. Meeks, though, signed the online petition to preserve the museum’s funding. 

“It’s very unnerving because I wonder what’s going to happen to the institution as a whole,” Meeks said. “I’m very discouraged by what’s happening and I’m afraid that, if we don’t get any state support, the museum will close down.”

Meeks said she has already noticed changes in the museum, including the departure of one employee who left because they knew their job would be cut. A case of modern mammal skulls was completely removed from the museum, and Meeks said the staff has discussed removing other collections as well.

Since the planned cuts were announced, two additional employees have retired, and Theriot said these positions will not be filled, which will help save money.

If implemented, budget cuts to the 75-year-old museum will result in the elimination of several administrative and technology support staff jobs, bringing the museum’s staff from 11 positions to three. Theriot’s job would also be changed so that it would no longer guarantee him a summer salary. 

“Exactly what my duties would be are still be discussed,” Theriot, who does not teach any classes this semester, said. “I would be a professor first and director of the museum second.”  

Theriot said the remaining positions would include a security guard, gift shop manager and an administrative assistant.

“It would be very difficult to operate the museum with three people, and we’re making every effort we can to make sure it doesn’t get to that,” Theriot said. 

To generate revenue, Theriot said he has considered charging an admission fee for the museum. If the museum had an admission fee, it would have to independently pay for custodial staff, electricity and water, possibly making its budget problems worse.

“My personal perspective is we should be conservative in our budgeting,” Theriot said. “I’d rather have money left over at the end of the year than cut a bunch of staff.”

Exhibit designer John Maisano presents the halted design plans for the Texas Memorial Museum’s fourth floor exhibit on Monday afternoon. Maisano not only lost his plans, but may also lose his 14 year long employment at the museum due to severe budget cuts in University funds.

 

Photo Credit: Jonathan Garza | Daily Texan Staff

The Texas Memorial Museum will lose nearly $400,000 in University funds and experience a staff reduction from 11 employees to three as a result of budget cuts, which will be implemented on Sept. 1 of next year.

The on-campus museum, which will celebrate its 75th anniversary next year, currently operates on an annual budget of $600,000. Without University funding, that budget will shrink by more than two-thirds. 

The Museum will continue to receive $108,000 in state funding and $50,000 from gift shop sales, and raises roughly $50,000 in donations annually, though museum administrators hope that number will increase. The three remaining positions will include a security guard, gift shop operator and one other employee. 

“I’m still not entirely sure what the best skill-set will be for the remaining staff member or members to have,” said Edward Theriot, integrative biology professor and museum director. “The security guard’s job will be security, the gift shop operator’s job is going to be the gift shop and it will fall upon that third person to take care of everything else that the museum does. That’s the hardest piece the puzzle — to figure out what’s going to be the best solution there.” 

The Texas Memorial Museum is a part of the Texas Natural Science Center, an organized research unit within the College of Natural Sciences. The center was established to promote research and educational activities surrounding biodiversity. 

Lee Clippard, College of Natural Sciences spokesman, said the decision to cut the Museum’s funding comes from the College of Natural Sciences dean’s office. 

“The [museum] has long been an important fixture on the UT campus and is a wonderful resource for our community and visitors to campus,” Clippard said. “Unfortunately, the budget situation at the University and in the College of Natural Sciences is such that we must make difficult decisions.”

Natural Sciences Dean Linda Hicke was not available for comment.

Theriot, who will also lose his job at the museum, has been tasked with finding alternative sources of revenue and deciding the best strategy for a museum with dramatically reduced staff.

“I don’t doubt that the decision was made with some anguish and difficulty,” Theriot said. “I’m not complaining — my job is to try to find a solution and for the last two weeks that’s what I’ve been out there trying to do. I’ve met with a dozen stakeholders within and outside the University. In some ways we’ve been anticipating this [but] I do wish it was coming two or three more years down the road where we’d be in a much better position with the things we’re trying to do.”

Theriot said a museum program that employs students may not survive the budget cut.

Holly Hansel, a studio art senior and work-study student for the museum, said eliminating the student docent program would be taking away a rare opportunity. 

“As docents, we lead tours and do a lot of intern-type help and it would be a shame to see the opportunity to be an actual tour leader to be taken away,” Hansel said.

Theriot said the museum, which receives more than 90,000 visitors every year, had been working towards a more stable income involving more outside funding over the past several years.

Hansel, who assisted at the museum’s annual Halloween festival last weekend, said the event was bittersweet. The event was one of several the museum hosts throughout the year to educate and connect with the community.

“[There] was a great turnout, we had over 2,000 kids there,” Hansel said. “I’m glad we got to do that but some of the workers were a bit misty-eyed because this may be their last Halloween even at the museum.” 

John Maisano, museum exhibits designer for nearly 14 years, said he is unsure about what the future holds. 

“I would love to continue [working] in the museum world of course, but museum jobs are just not easy to come by,” Maisano said. “We’re all just in a really scary place, but I don’t feel like I’m finished here. There’s so much I wanted to do.”

The National Fossil Day website was closed Wednesday because of the shutdown, but the Texas Memorial Museum still celebrated the day with a workshop about fossils and fossil identification.

Pamela Owen, senior biodiversity educator at the museum, offered her expertise to visitors throughout the day. Owen said she frequently identifies fossils for people over email using photographs, but for National Fossil Day the museum provided a chance for people to show her their fossils.

“Have you ever watched ‘Antiques Roadshow’ on PBS?” Owens said. “We don’t appraise, we don’t say, ‘Oh, it’s worth this [amount],’ but it’s that personal interaction and getting the whole story like, ‘Where did you find it?’ There’s something really rewarding about doing identifications in person.”

Edward Theriot, Texas Natural Science Center director, said Central Texas is a great place to hunt for fossils, so many people use the museum as a resource for identifying what they find. 

“We have to provide an access to science for the public,” Theriot said. “The University has a role in service to that state. The museum is a component of that.”

He said the museum offers students and graduates the opportunity to reach out and connect with the public using the information they learn in the classroom. Approximately 400 local teachers use museum resources every year, Theriot said.

James Sagebiel is the collection manager for the vertebrate fossil collection, which is part of the Jackson School of Geosciences.

“The fossil collections split from the Texas Memorial Museum very recently,” Sagebiel said.

The fossil collection has always been owned by the geosciences school, but the school separated from the College of Natural Sciences in 2005. Administration is still working to separate the collection from the natural sciences college. The main fossil exhibits will remain in the Texas Memorial Museum.

Owen said the exhibit is an important part of education at every level because fossils help students understand history.

“We are celebrating fossils by educating people,” Owen said. “Unfortunately, because of the government shutdown, you can’t see the National Fossil Day website but you would see that it’s really becoming a big deal. It’s growing.”

Theriot said he believes the work of the museum and the fossil exhibit are key to understanding the past, present and future.

“The reason the past is important to me is that we understand what the future might be like,” Theriot said. “The present is not going to stay this way forever. The better we understand the past, the better we can predict the future.”

A creationist group expressed interest in including information about the religious belief in science textbooks that comply with the new Texas curriculum.

The Richardson-based Foundation of Thought and Ethics seeks to expand children’s education, specifically on creationism, or the belief that God created the world. Although public schools cannot legally teach creationism, the latest Texas curriculum requires students to learn the weaknesses of evolution when studying the origin of man, said Don McLeroy, former State Board of Education member. The board will vote on the proposed material in April.

“The standards are what the publishers look at when they write their textbooks,” board spokeswoman DeEtta Culbertson said.

The State Board of Education changed its science curriculum in 2009, and publishers are creating new books to comply with the new standards, which specifically require students to “critique scientific explanations by using empirical evidence,” she said.

Books are considered to conform to the standards when they cover all of the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills test objectives for that subject area, Culbertson said. The new standards cover strengths and weaknesses of evolutionary scientific studies in order to examine all areas of scientific theory, she said.

McLeroy said the board is restoring scientific integrity to the teaching of evolution by requiring students to think critically and to challenge the theory

“Everyone accepts real science,” said McLeroy, who has studied evolution for more than 30 years. “Genetics has empirical science behind it. Evolution does not, despite what they say. What we have shown in Texas will restore the luster of science because we are being honest.”

McLeroy said he looks forward to seeing how the textbooks will incorporate the new curriculum. The board released the list of potential contributors Thursday.

Students will study challenges to evolution’s weaknesses, including gaps in the fossil record in which sudden species appear, he said.

Integrative biology professor Edward Theriot said he completely rejects gaps in the fossil record as a valid challenge to the theory of evolution.

“You can’t expect to find every single kind of organism,” Theriot said. “It only means the entire history of life did not get preserved.”

Theriot said the problem lies in the public’s misconception of the definition of a scientific theory. He said scientific theories are tools scientists use to make predictions about the natural world.

“That is what science is,” he said. “That is what needs to be taught in schools. We need to do a better job explaining what science is and what it is for.”

Theriot said scientists used the theory of evolution to predict the course of influenza viruses and to help capture criminals using forensic analysis.

“If evolution is just a theory, gravity is just a theory,” Theriot said. “We can predict some things better with evolution than we can with the theory of gravity.”