For many people the defining moment in the Field Museum's recent history was the bid at a 1997 auction that made Chicago home to the Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton known as Sue.
But that choice could have far less impact on the Field's future than another decision made five years later and with much less fanfare: a vote by prominent Chicagoans on the museum's board to issue $90 million worth of bonds for a laundry list of exhibits and building projects.
The move doubled the Field's total bond debt and added millions to its annual expenses. But the board's plan to pay back the money was fraught with risk.
Now, hamstrung by debt payments, the museum is facing far-reaching consequences: layoffs and a massive restructuring that has stirred controversy around the globe.
The Field's gamble was characteristic of a decadelong spending and borrowing spree then under way at many local cultural institutions. A global economic meltdown would eventually undermine their ambitious plans and leave some reeling.
Yet their troubles cannot be blamed entirely on the recession, experts say. The institutions contributed to their problems by starting big-ticket projects without raising enough money, relying instead on overoptimistic financial assumptions. For example, some officials wrongly predicted that expensive renovations would boost attendance permanently.
No major cultural institution in Chicago took on as much risk as the Field, where borrowed money funded acclaimed exhibit halls on evolution and ancient cultures, a state-of-the-art facility to preserve scientific specimens and a new entrance.
When a museum embarks on such projects, the conventional wisdom is that trustees and executives should secure pledges for at least half the cost before breaking ground.
Time and again, however, the Field moved forward without hitting that benchmark. Instead of raising money ahead of time, trustees and staff bet that investment returns would outstrip borrowing costs.
That didn't happen, and fundraising never caught up. In the end, the museum raised just $150 million of the $254 million it spent on capital projects from 2000 through 2011, the Tribune found.
The resulting financial crunch is forcing painful decisions. For more than a century, the Field has maintained a demanding dual mission: running an acclaimed public museum while also conducting world-class scientific research. The cuts are expected to fall heavily on the research side.
"What the administration is talking about in terms of cutting curators and scientists will dramatically and permanently change the nature and mission of the Field Museum," said anthropology curator Jonathan Haas, whose department is being merged with botany, geology and zoology into a single unit. "It will remove us from those ranks of internationally recognized natural history museums."
The cuts also may affect the average visitor. Millions were spent on a hall to display popular traveling exhibits, such as the show featuring clothes worn by first lady Jacqueline Kennedy. Now the museum says it will host fewer such exhibits in part because of the expense to rent them.
The Field's massive borrowing was approved in 2002 by a sprawling board of more than 50 trustees, some of whom acknowledged they gave little thought to consequential votes.
In 2010, after the recession hit, the museum embarked on a plan to shore up its deteriorating finances. Yet the Field implemented few of the recommendations provided by financial consultants brought on to help in the effort, even though the consultants predicted a $12 million annual operating deficit by 2014.
The Field also made a questionable change in accounting practices that caused the museum to appear healthier than it was. It did cut its budget, shrinking its staff by nearly 10 percent. But even that didn't fix the problem.
John McCarter, president of the Field from 1996 until last year, when Richard Lariviere took the post, presided over the spending and borrowing during that period. He said the added exhibits and facilities made the museum stronger and have helped drive revenue. McCarter said everything built under his watch was eventually paid for and that the museum had a lower debt load relative to its peers when it took out the $90 million loan in 2002.
"It was not out on a ledge," McCarter said. "It was very thoughtful bond counsel discussions with the ratings agencies, analysis of the balance sheets of peer institutions."
McCarter also noted that the museum raised more than $70 million before 2000. But those fundraising efforts were expected to contribute just $37 million to capital projects, according to museum bond documents.