Head of His Field

UI alumnus and former Oregon president guides a Chicago cultural landmark.

Richard Lariviere, 72BA, is pictured in front of the Field Museum’s famous fossil known as Sue—the largest, best-preserved, and most complete Tyrannosaurus rex specimen ever found. (Photo: Field Museum/John Weinstein)

As a historian, university president, and now the head of a renowned natural history museum, Richard Lariviere has worked in many of the world’s great cities.

But Lariviere still looks back fondly on the place that helped stoke that curiosity for global culture as a young man: the University of Iowa, where he studied the history of religions as an undergraduate.

Today, Lariviere, 72BA, is president and CEO of the Field Museum, a Chicago landmark founded in 1893 and one of the world’s leading natural history institutions. He’s guided the museum since 2012, following nearly 30 years in the academic world. That included time as president at the University of Oregon, executive vice chancellor and provost at the University of Kansas, and dean of the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Texas at Austin.

The Marshalltown, Iowa, native earned his doctorate in Sanskrit in 1978 from the University of Pennsylvania, where he studied the Hebrew and Hindu legal traditions. He reads eight languages and speaks French and Hindi, and he’s published several books on India’s legal history. He returned to the UI as a visiting professor from 1980 to 1982.

Lariviere recently spoke with Iowa Alumni Magazine about his work at the museum, his days at the UI, and following in the footsteps of former UI President Willard “Sandy” Boyd, who was president at the Field Museum from 1981 to 1996. Here’s our conversation, edited for length and clarity:

Growing up in small-town Iowa, were there many opportunities to visit museums?

I was actually born in Chicago and we had a lot of family here, so I came here a lot. When I walked in the Field Museum after being selected as president for the first time, it was really an emotional experience. It was like going back to my childhood in some respects.

Is the Field Museum similar today to what it was back then?

About the only thing that’s similar are the two taxidermied elephants in Stanley Field Hall. Everything else has changed dramatically. When I took this job and it was publicly announced, I was astonished at the number of people who wrote and told me they first knew they wanted to be scientists as a result of a visit to the Field Museum.

How long have you known Sandy Boyd?

He was the president of the university when I was an undergraduate, and I had great affection for him—even when I didn’t know how tough that job is. We’ve met several times since, and my affection has grown for him. He’s come to see me at the museum a couple of times.

Was it a big transition moving from a university to the museum?

A museum like the Field Museum is really a research institution. We have 150 scientific staff here, and the complexity of the place is remarkable. Sandy characterized it in the following way: “It’s as complex as a major university, but with less money.” And I think that’s pretty accurate.

My duties are similar to that of a university president. You don’t have your hands on the research quite so much, but the decisions you make on a regular basis can influence the ease or difficulty of doing that research.

Do you have a favorite exhibit in the Field Museum?

The Field Museum probably has the finest exhibit on evolution that I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen most of them around the world. This one, which is called “The Evolving Planet,” is really dazzling for its clarity and sophistication.

How is the museum world changing today, and how are you working to keep your institution relevant?

Museums have the real objects. People talk about how you can see images of all kinds of natural phenomena on the web, so why would you want to go to a museum? Well, there’s really no substitute for it. Everybody has seen a picture of the Mona Lisa, but there’s no substitute for being in front of that great work of art. It’s the same way with a natural history museum—you can’t see animals any better way than in the dioramas of a natural history museum.

All of the huge advances in scientific technology are making our collections of greater scientific value. No one could have imagined in 1928, for example, when Kermit Roosevelt, Teddy’s son, was shooting pandas in south China, that those panda pelts, now located in the Field Museum, would be crucial for the protection and survival of the panda in 2016, because nobody knew about DNA. And those types of technological advances are coming at such a stunning rate that we can do things with specimens that were unimaginable just a few years ago.

One thing I can tell you with absolute certainty is that nobody will ever be able to go to 1928 southern China or 1958 Guatemala or 1960 Congo and collect specimens again. We’ve got those here—30 million specimens—and they’re hugely important for our understanding of climate change and evolution, and are essential for the protection of the natural world today.

Do you have any favorite memories from your time on campus at UI?

For my wife (Janis Worcester, 71BS) and I, one of the warmest memories we have is walking on the Iowa River together after it had frozen solid. Undergraduates today would find it very hard to believe, I suspect, because of global warming.

—Josh O’Leary, Iowa Alumni Magazine

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