Keynote at The Field Museum
First Monday

Keynote at The Field Museum by John McCarter

This paper is the keynote address given at the Web–Wise 2004 Conference on Wednesday, 3 March 2004 in Chicago at The Field Museum.


Welcome to The Field Museum and to the 2004 Institute for Museum and Library Services Web–Wise Conference.

You are leading the charge of expanding the ability of libraries and museums in this new and rapidly changing information age. We are at a time when digital technologies and the changing landscape of their use offer powerful opportunities but great challenges.

How we answer these challenges will help shape our global society. We carry the torch for public education in science, the arts, humanities, and history, and much of the charge for the enlightenment of the public falls to us.

That charge, one of public enlightenment, was behind the founding of this institution at the time of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition and has guided our subsequent growth. I’d like to share with you an overview of the current Field Museum.

Let me share some statistics.

  • Field Museum curators author 250 scientific publications per year;
  • We are currently executing 80 research grants totaling $30 million;
  • We are active in over 90 countries worldwide; and,
  • 600 scientists are affiliated with us.

We steward premier Natural History collections.

  • 22 million specimens and artifacts;
  • 800 new specimens arrive each day;
  • A 270,000 volume research library;
  • 111 years of institutional archives, including 400,000 photographs; and,
  • 7,500 rare works, the earliest dating to 1461.

Video of Steve Goodman, zoologist, The Field Museum.

We have over 350,00 square feet of public space, including 18 permanent halls that treat our natural world, and 12 that focus on the world’s cultures. These have provided the foundation of our lifelong learning.

Video of Jenny McElwain, paleobotanist, The Field Museum.

For over 80 years, the Field Museum has presented major temporary exhibitions of compelling scientific and ethnographic collections from all over the world. These not only respond to topics of great public interest, but they also treat timely issues in our understanding of our natural and cultural world. In the past four years alone, we have presented such exhibitions as:

  • Cleopatra of Egypt: From History to Myth;
  • Eternal Egypt: Masterworks of Ancient Art from the British Museum;
  • The Dead Sea Scrolls;
  • Chocolate;
  • Pearls;
  • Kremlin Gold: 1000 Years of Russian Gems and Jewels;
  • Star Wars: The Magic of Myth;
  • Julie Taymor: Playing with Fire; and,
  • The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition.

This year we will have a particularly strong temporary exhibition program, including:

  • Splendors of China’s Forbidden City: The Glorious Reign of Emperor Qianlong with the Palace Museum, Bejing;
  • Machu Picchu: Unveiling the Mysteries of the Incas; and,
  • Jacqueline Kennedy: The White House Years.

Our educational programs, designed to enhance our permanent and temporary exhibitions for all ages and backgrounds, consistently earn praise for innovation, dating back to our founding of the Harris Loan program in 1911. Launched as ‘Harris Boxes,’ this program was the first museum educational loan program. It now brings Museum science into the schools through exhibit cases, experience boxes, and audiovisual materials that greatly enhance classroom learning. Think of it as our "lending library."

We provide educational experiences through our educator programs such as Field Ambassadors and our student field trips and classroom curriculum support. Through Field Ambassadors, we partner with educators from the Chicago Public Schools, orient them to the Museum and our program, and they return to their classrooms as our ambassadors. This has been extraordinarily successful in increasing adoption of our programs, building attendance, and in helping us better meet educator needs.

We also have a strong ongoing adult learning program with a wide network of collaborators such as National Geographic and the Chicago Humanities Festival.

How we are using technologies today

We are growing and changing as our building ages. We are investing in our infrastructure. As our collections grow, age and change, their stewardship is of increasing importance. Our new Collections Resource Center, under construction under our south and east terraces, will create an additional 180,000 square feet of compact shelving in climate–controlled space for the management and study of our specimens and objects.

A montage of storage areas, The Field Museum.

When this Daniel Burnham building was designed, it was meant to have the capacity to support 48 independent telephone lines. Needless to say, things have changed. We are now at 1,100 telephones and 900 networked devices. We have recently upgraded our technology infrastructure, increasing our capacity of connection to the Internet fourfold and our internal network 100–fold. Without increasing the ability and reliability of this infrastructure, our daily operations would cease. This infrastructure is also critical as voice, data and video converge in our scientific and educational programs.

We have put our library catalog online, and now we are investing in a new collections information management strategy. Called Common Ground, it will revolutionize what had been 66 independent databases on 11 different platforms into a single state–of–the–art solution that will bring the critical stewardship of our collections to a common, elevated standard. Common Ground will allow us to disseminate our collections and share them more seamlessly with other institutions to create authoritative worldwide compendia of the diversity of life and human cultures. The Smithsonian, American Museum of Natural History, New York Botanical Garden, and Natural History Museum of London are moving in parallel with us on this project.

We now have new analytical facilities, such as:

  • our Pritzker Molecular Laboratory for the investigation of DNA variability among plants and animals has forty researchers from 20 countries using it for groundbreaking DNA science;
  • our Isotope Geochemistry Mass Spectrometer for analyzing trace amounts of isotopes is the only lab of its kind in a museum and is capable of dating rocks over the course of Earth’s 4.6 billion year history and for determining the source of meteorites;
  • our Scanning Electron Microscope for describing unique and minute plant and animal morphologies; and,
  • a new Geographical Information Systems labs used to create interactive maps and predictive models of biodiversity and ancient cultures.

We will soon be installing a new Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometer and an analytical Scanning Electron Microscope, the addition of which will allow us to determine the source and exchange of pottery metals.

We can now study and interpret our collections and advance our science in ways not previously envisioned. These unique research resources that create "digitally born" analytical data that thrive because they are inherently sharable and interactive.


We are also reinventing the dissemination of Science. Our scientists are being captured and broadcast, no longer hidden from our public: Janet Voigt exploring the thermal vents and examining tube worms of the East Pacific Rise; Gary Feinman excavating ancient societies in China and Mexico; and, Lance Grande searching the Green River Fossil fish beds of Wyoming. Our Expeditions@Fieldmuseum program is a new approach to research and scientific reporting. Video reports, collections information and interpretations, as well as personal reflections from the field are a dynamic, live, report not only of science but the Enterprise of Science. There is no greater way to interest our next generation of scientists than to show them science in action and to imbue in them the excitement of the expedition.

Janet Voight, The Field Museum.


We pursue our missions to educate and inspire in a societal climate of great challenges:

  • Our schools have failed to attract and keep students interested in science with the result that many students are unwilling to commit to the hard work of becoming scientifically literate;
  • Students in science from overseas populate our graduate schools but are increasingly excluded from the United States due to immigration and visa constraints and we do not have the flow of American students of science to these schools;
  • As a society, we have failed our inner city children and allowed segregation to become an intergenerational permanent condition; and,
  • Technology has produced a plethora of unedited information of questionable integrity and difficult to digest or use.

How do institutions like ours communicate with this society?

The next generation is growing up digital. The Internet will put more choice and therefore power in the hands of the individual. This will create great challenges for our institutions but great opportunities for those who can continue to innovate and to understand how the world is changing around us.

I think we must accomplish four tasks.

  • Continue to believe in the strength of our core missions. Unlike hospitals, people do not physically die if we fail in our mission; rather a death of the intellect and spirit results if we fail to bind our society together with free and open exchange of information;
  • Second, we need to know how Generations X, Y, and now Z use information and what they expect. We cannot follow the lead of symphony orchestras, playing to older and older audiences at excessive ticket prices;
  • Third, we must lead our businesses not only responding to change but also anticipating change. We must regard our organizations as organic and flexible rather than static and tradition bound; and,
  • Finally, we must take seriously the challenge of information overload. If we do not give the public compelling reasons to seek us, to differentiate our message from that of Hollywood versions of the truth, we will lose our relevance.

We must not fall for the easy way of ‘edutainment’ (one of the most overused terms since ‘paradigm shift’) but must force ourselves to make our content accessible and interesting. And we must do this with resources that are tiny in comparison to other content providers.

As museums and libraries, we hold the public trust for the future and you, as the future of museums and libraries, hold the key to our continued success. That is why conferences like this are critical — they bring our community together around common purpose and vision and show the way for us to reinvent our future as the world changes.

Again, welcome to the Field Museum. We are delighted you are here. End of article


About the Author

John McCarter is president and chief executive officer of the Field Museum in Chicago. A native Chicagoan, McCarter was previously senior vice president of Booz Allen and Hamilton, Inc., president of DeKalb Corp., and budget director of the state of Illinois under Governor Richard B. Ogilvie. A graduate of Princeton University and Harvard Business School, McCarter also attended the London School of Economics.

Editorial history

Paper received 22 March 2004; accepted 21 April 2004.

Copyright ©2004, First Monday

Copyright ©2004, John McCarter

Keynote at The Field Museum by John McCarter
First Monday, Volume 9, Number 5 - 3 May 2004

A Great Cities Initiative of the University of Illinois at Chicago University Library.

© First Monday, 1995-2018. ISSN 1396-0466.