by Heather Pringle (January 16, 2009)
In a time of darkening financial gloom, when the hedge fund industry is collapsing and sales of Kraft Dinners are booming, and everyone from GM to Microsoft and Motorola are threatening major layoffs, you may not have paid much attention to a brief news story coming out of the University of Pennsylvania Museum. There, on November 19th, a month before Christmas, director Richard Hodges announced that the museum would be disbanding its MASCA division, and terminating eighteen senior researchers, effective next May.
I should state flat out that I think this is a real error, one the museum will have cause to regret in years to come. Penn Museum has long been a mecca of archaeological research in the United States, and its renowned MASCA division (the acronym stands for Museum Applied Science Center for Archaeology) has won kudos in fields as diverse as archaeological chemistry and faunal analysis.
Even the most cursory look at the accomplishments of the researchers in question speaks volumes about their contributions to the archaeological community. Archaeological chemist Patrick McGovern, for example, has led the way in developing new techniques for detecting residues of the earliest known fermented beverages, including grape wine and barley beer, and a type of “grog” blended along China’s Yellow River as early as 7000 B.C. Epigrapher Simon Martin is one of the world’s leading Mayanists, a researcher who has devoted his career to deciphering hieroglyphic inscriptions and chronicling the rise and fall of Maya kings. Zooarchaeologist Kathleen Ryan is an expert on the early domestication of livestock, and her work has shed fascinating new light on humanity’s transition from hunting to animal herding.
I realize that times are tough and that our major public institutions have to worry, like many private corporations, about balancing budgets, tightening belts and cutting costs. But these layoffs seem misguided to me. In the not so distant past, archaeology was largely a field science. It consisted of long months of excavation at a major site, followed by weeks of analysis in an archaeological lab. But today, given the steep costs of excavation, archaeologists are spending far less time in the field, and trying to extract much more data from old museum collections, auger samples, remote sensing photos and the like. This means that they depend increasingly on analyses conducted by archaeological specialists—chemists, faunal experts, computer scientists, remote sensing experts, botanists and so on. MASCA and many of the newly fired museum researchers were devoted to just this kind of research: they will soon be gone.
I wonder why a museum that places “research excellence” at the top of its priorities in its online mission statement couldn’t have found a better way to economize. Other businesses in extremis have managed to do so. In the news yesterday, I read that New York Magazine, which has been hammered by declining ad revenues, took a much more sensible approach to its problems. Its managing editor called each of its staff writers, one by one, into her office, laid out the dire financial picture and asked for salary cuts. In this way, the magazine seems to have avoided layoffs of vital staff members.
I wish someone at Penn Museum had tried something similar before handing out those pink slips so freely.