A Museum Steeped in the Past Looks Ahead

NEW YORK'S American Museum of Natural History - the largest nature and anthropology museum in the world - turns 125 this year, and is readying a gala birthday bash to celebrate. Yet the venerable institution is simultaneously looking into the future under the leadership of a young new president.

A museum where the Pleistocene Epoch is considered the day before yesterday might not be expected to put its own evolution on a fast track. But when its board of trustees selected Ellen Futter - a dynamic, 44-year-old executive without a scientific background - to take charge last year, the natural-history museum showed that it has no intention of being an institutional dinosaur.

In a city teeming with world-class art museums, libraries, orchestras, and opera and dance companies, the American Museum of Natural History lacks a certain cachet - at least among major donors and philanthropies that support cultural institutions. Ms. Futter, the former president of Barnard College in New York, is expected to heighten the museum's profile and help it compete more effectively for private and public funds.

Announcing Futter's selection last June to succeed Dr. George Langdon Jr. (she actually took office in December), board chairman William Golden said, ``What prevailed were her leadership qualities, administrative skill, financial acumen, and demonstrated fund-raising ability.'' Mr. Golden noted that Futter will be backed up by administrators with the scientific training she lacks.

Some highbrows regard the museum's prodigious displays of fossils, animal habitats, and anthropological artifacts as akin to nature shows on television: something interesting for the kids on a rainy afternoon. (Half of the 3 million visitors to the museum and its Hayden Planetarium each year, in fact, are schoolchildren.)

Yet the museum is more than just a repository for rocks, bones, and primitive tools. Its staff of some 200 scientists and curators engage in ground-breaking research in newer fields like molecular biology and global warming as well as in such traditional fields as paleontology. Each year the museum sponsors some 150 scientific field projects around the globe.

Among her primary goals, Futter says, are to increase public awareness of the museum's relevance to contemporary issues such as protecting the environment and preserving biodiversity, and to make the museum more of a force in science education.

The anniversary events that begin Saturday, May 14, and will continue through 1995 offer a golden opportunity ``to reintroduce the museum to the public,'' the new president says.

Futter is the first woman, and undoubtedly one of the youngest people, ever to lead a major cultural institution in New York City. She is accustomed to shattering stereotypes, however. She was just 31 and a lawyer with a large New York law firm in 1980 when she was tapped to be president of her undergraduate alma mater, Barnard, a prestigious all-women's college affiliated with Columbia University. During her 13 years at the college's helm, Futter added two dormitories, spearheaded curriculum reform, tripled Barnard's endowment, and oversaw a surge in student applications.

Asked in an interview how, without experience as an executive, she successfully tackled the large administrative and financial responsibilities of her new job at Barnard, Futter says with a laugh, ``I got a lot of on-the-job training.''

It's well that Futter is a quick study, for she will also require plenty of OJT to guide a museum that comprises 23 interconnected buildings housing 40 exhibition halls, plus research laboratories, teaching facilities, a large natural-history library, and storage areas for more than 30 million specimens and artifacts.

The museum has, among other things, the most comprehensive collection of dinosaur remains and fossil vertebrates in the world. It is engaged in a project to display this collection better. Two new halls devoted to fossil mammals will open this month, as part of the kickoff for the anniversary celebration. Four additional halls covering dinosaurs and primitive vertebrates will open in 1995 and 1996. Together, the six connecting halls will ``tell the story of vertebrate evolution through the most extensive and scientifically important array of fossils ever assembled,'' a museum press release says.

These rooms, like the Hall of Human Biology and Evolution that opened last year, will employ sophisticated multimedia technology to instruct visitors.

But Futter's vision also extends outward from the museum's cavernous halls. At her inauguration ceremony, she said: ``The time has come for [the museum] to play an increasingly central role in addressing social problems, to swing the doors even more widely open to all peoples, and to cast our influence beyond, as well as within, our walls and collections.''

The museum, she went on, is committed ``to serve as a leading platform for the debate of major scientific issues of our time and to play a visible role in the formulation of salutary public policy.''

As part of its anniversary commemoration, the museum will sponsor a series of what Futter calls ``major conferences'' on biodiversity and other current environmental issues.

Futter says that, as an educator, she is concerned about the lack of ``scientific literacy'' among the public. ``The chasm between those with scientific knowledge and those without it'' - what the British writer C. P. Snow 35 years ago called the Two Cultures - ``may be growing,'' she says.

``We need to have a public that can make informed policy judgments'' on such issues as the hole in the ozone layer, habitat preservation, and bioengineering, Futter says.

As part of what she says is an ``explicit goal'' to enhance scientific literacy, the museum recently completed a public survey on science and nature awareness. The survey results, released last month, indicate that Americans recognize the importance of science but have a spotty grasp of elementary scientific facts.

In trying to bolster scientific literacy, Futter says she will seek further ways to capitalize on one of the natural-history museum's singular assets: the ``awe'' its 50-foot-tall Barosaurus and other exhibits inspire in many visitors.

``Through awe, we can interest people in the process of education on issues important to all of us,'' Futter says.

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