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From fields to the Field: How a horticulture major ended up as the Field Museum’s general counsel

August 01, 2017
By Dustin J. Seibert
Chicago Lawyer correspondent

There aren’t many professions more different than horticulture and the practice of law. Lori Breslauer has done both, and both have connective tissue.

Breslauer is the Field Museum’s general counsel, heading a team that handles the legal issues of the museum’s 500 staff members and more than 30 million artifacts. She joined the Field Museum as an employee in 1994, in collections and research as an assistant to the vice president, who she said “very quickly took advantage of my legal background.”

She moved into the museum’s general counsel office about 13 years ago, worked her way up to acting general counsel and became general counsel at the beginning of 2014.

A significant part of Breslauer’s role involves working with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act to manage museum pieces that might need to be returned to their native tribes.

“We hold our collections in trust for the public and our trustees have a fiduciary responsibility to preserve these collections,” Breslauer said. “We have to have a really strong reason to give them away because we consider them a permanent scientific collection. We go through a very rigorous process of research to make sure items requested fulfill our policy before we return them.”

CL: How did your early career get started?

Breslauer: I was interested in gardening since high school, and my mother and I were avid gardeners. My undergraduate degree from Purdue is in horticulture, and I had a professor who glommed onto me as someone who might want to work in public institutions, like botanic gardens and arboreta.

When I graduated from Purdue, my first job was with the Chicago Botanical Garden. My dream job at the time was to work at the Morton Arboretum. It took a year of begging, but I got the job and worked there for 3½ years. I realized I didn’t want to be washing greenhouses for the rest of my life because it was a very physical job. As much as I enjoyed it, I wanted to be doing something that was intellectually challenging.

CL: How did you transition into law?

Breslauer: I think in my family it was an expectation I would eventually go into law school, so I was bucking the trend for a while. At Northwestern, I took a class offered as a seminar in nonprofit law, taught by then president of the Field Museum, [Willard] Sandy Boyd. Northwestern promotes getting a job at a large corporate firm, so I went to work for a midsize firm [then Sachnoff & Weaver] with a small corporate practice that got caught in downsizing.

I was working on the corporate side of a firm when I was let go and had to go looking for a job. When I got let go, I didn’t have the skills and the economy was really tough to find my way back into the corporate world and I realized it wasn’t where I wanted to be, so I worked for some nonprofits for a couple of years. While networking I met with Sandy, and he suggested I volunteer at the Field Museum. At the time, there was nothing of interest to me there, but when I learned [the museum] hired their first in-house counsel, I volunteered to work for him and that’s how I got my foot in the door at the museum.

CL: What does your typical workday look like?

Breslauer: I tell people that my expertise is very broad but shallow. Repatriation and wildlife issues are deep. I deal with contract review, employment and intellectual property issues. One of the most interesting is SUE the T. Rex — we have a trademark and copyrights in SUE. Though SUE is the most complete Tyrannosaurus rex fossil found to date, we had to sculpt and create missing bones, so we also have a registered copyright in missing bones as well as the pose of SUE. We need to know if her likeness will be used in a greeting card, book or beer.

CL: When Iowa brewery Toppling Goliath Brewing Co., used SUE’s likeness, you opted not to sue. Why?

Breslauer: We were able to work out a win-win for everybody. We have partnered with other brand companies in Chicago, including Off Color Brewing and Two Brothers [Artisan Brewing]. It initially started off in a confrontational matter because there were lawyers involved, and we sent a cease-and-desist letter. But the brewery is a great fan of the Field Museum, and we wanted to know if we could work things out in way that could benefit everyone.

In some cases, we’ve had requests from people who want to license our artifacts for commercial use, including a group in China who wanted a facsimile book of some very famous rubbings in our collection, so we’re working with them. Oftentimes, in cases like that, they’re not looking to profit from the venture but wish to get our collections out to the public.

CL: Tell us more about the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAPRA).

Breslauer: It [the act] passed [Congress] in 1990 and required museums to prepare inventories and summaries of all their native American human remains and associated objects. The law allows Native American tribes and lineal descendants to request that objects be repatriated to them. It’s a very complex law that tries to balance the interests of Native Americans in receiving these sacred objects against what Congress recognizes as valid scientific interests. The law tries to balance those two competing interests.

We were the first museum in the U.S., and possibly the world, to have a written repatriation policy, which we adopted in 1989. Our policy goes beyond NAPRA because it allows us to consider requests from anywhere in world for human remains. We have repatriated human remains on an international basis and our collection at Field Museum of Native American ethnographic objects is one of the best.

CL: How does the Field Museum work directly with the tribes?

Breslauer: Under the statute, Native American tribes can apply for consultation grants and we’ve been successful working with them to get these grants as well as having representatives from their tribes come in and look at our collections. I work as part of a team with our repatriation director, Helen Robbins, to work closely with tribes to look at our collections with them, help them understand the statute and understand how to provide strong claims for their objects.

There was a belief among anthropologists that Native American tribes were dying out and becoming extinct, so they were trying to preserve cultures when they were, in fact, very vibrant and alive.

In some cases, the collections we hold are important in helping them rebuild their past practices. So when many of these objects were collected, museums including Field Museum and American Museum of Natural History [in New York City] were in competition to build the best and strongest collections in the early 1900s.

It’s very fascinating because I’ve been involved in repatriation since the statute first passed, and I’ve seen the museum come to terms with what the statute requires and witnessed us grow as an institution and develop much stronger relationships with the tribes we’ve worked with.

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