Treasures of the lost Arkansas Museum - Drawers of knowledge 

There's no museum, but there's plenty in it.

Old dead rats are valuable, writes molecular biologist Jared Diamond, for the genetic clues to evolution they hold. So are salamanders swimming in alcohol; Cornell scientists are using them to evaluate environmental degradation. Birds hold clues to flight and mating habits, even stuffed, tagged and cotton-ball eyed. These dead things pulled from drawers and jars are the place where science starts. There are 7 million objects, including rats and salamanders and birds, in the collection of the University of Arkansas Museum - which no longer exists. The U of A, in a move that saved $340,542, closed down the museum's admittedly out-of-date facility, an old field house, and fired six employees. (Two of them filled other campus jobs, one returned to graduate study, one retired and the remaining two left Arkansas.) But the collection, begun more than 113 years ago, before there was particular exhibit space for it, remains, and so perhaps the "museum" lives on. It's housed in state-of-the-art facilities at the U of A Biomass Research Center. Two people - Dr. Nancy McCartney, curator of zoological collections, and Mary Suter, curator of museum collections - survived the firings and alone are responsible for the maintenance of the collection and its use. That's about 3.5 million objects apiece. U of A students use the collections, researchers use the collections, other museums borrow the collections for exhibits. Today, if someone wants to look at, for example, examples of Caddoan pottery, he or she must call either McCartney or Suter, who will answer the one phone they now have in their office at the Biomass Building. They still answer "Museum Collections." "We think these two people can handle the task at hand," said Associate Dean John Hehr, who is now interim director of the museum (another example, perhaps, that the museum lives). "If we were to need a third person, we would try to find the funds to do that." Hehr, speaking in an interview with the Times last week, also noted that the state Archeological Survey "has people out there," in its offices adjoining the Biomass Building, who could pitch in. Hehr said the University wants to maintain the collection and add to it. He said he and a couple of members of the board's advisory panel - a group of Fayetteville residents - plan to travel later in the year to museums in the region and "begin thinking about … what size museum should we have, how should it be configured, where should it be, how can we fund it." He said architecture students would draw up a plan for development officers to present to the public to see if there is interest in endowing a museum. "I would like a museum here," Hehr said. But, he added, it's one thing to build a museum and another to staff it. The collection - much of it amassed by the "golden-tongued" (former director Dr. Charles McGimsey's words) renaissance man and zoologist Dr. Samuel Dellinger - can boast of rare prehistoric woven baskets from bluff shelters, items Dellinger went after when he saw Arkansas's Indian heritage being plundered by other states and museums. It also has a fine collection of split oak baskets from the last couple of centuries, examples of a craft brought to the Ozarks from Appalachia. Curators note its collection of work by George Gibson (1890-1979), an Ozark basketmaker for 80 years. When Dellinger found something he liked "he went out and talked somebody into giving him the money to buy it," McGimsey said. It is apocryphal that Dellinger purchased some of the Spiro Mound material in Fort Smith's red light district from women who'd been paid with looted pots. Retired Dellinger colleague Dr. Michael Hoffman, an archeologist, said Dellinger believed the collections were more important to the citizens of Arkansas than football and had said "the artifacts should be met with a brass band" upon their arrival. The band would have sounded off at the museum's exceptional egg collection and its fossil collection (which includes a mammoth head from Hazen). Its Ming vases and Greek vases, while not an expression of Arkansas culture, do Arkansas proud. Its vertebrate collection holds the best faunal record of Arkansas critters in the state. There are other objects in the collection that trace modern technology. The first computer ever used on the U of A campus, its cord as big around as a mature boa constrictor and its switch plate as big as a man's hand, is there. A campus box office desk designed by famed architect Robert Durrell Stone. The first telephone in Washington County - a phone that, when former director McGimsey took it to a class of schoolchildren, prompted the question from a little boy: "If it was the first phone, who did they call?" They aren't curiosities, but parts of Arkansas history. The University of Oklahoma once housed its collection of six million artifacts (excluding minerals and rocks) in barns and basements and abandoned stables. That changed when then-director Michael Mares began a campaign - including tours of the pathetic storage spaces - to drum up support for a first-class repository of Oklahoma's heritage. It took 17 years and support from the city, state and a private donor, but the result was the Sam Noble Oklahoma Natural History Museum in Norman. How many curators does it employ for its collection? Fifteen, each of whom has an assistant, as well as a security staff. Its total curatorial staff employs 70 people. Mares, now returned to research from his long-time administration of the museum, found Arkansas's situation distressing. He knows the collections, is impressed by them. "You can't curate 7 million objects" he said flatly, "with two people," Hoffman is similarly distressed. Dellinger, he said, would be "outraged. And would have gone to all the politicians in the state and reversed" the university's decision. Archeologist Hoffman fears that the museum closure could cost the University some of its most valuable holdings - the exquisite Indian grave goods, such as the rare human head effigies - if descendant tribes believe they're not being cared for properly. "The pot collection is one of the most important in the Southeast. Many are subject to repatriation. We've hoped the tribes, after acquiring legal title [to the artifacts] would allow the museum to curate them, and we have an agreement with the Quapaw. But the closing of the museum makes that more difficult." The museum collection was likened to a library - and no one would close a library, right? "People are always comparing museums and libraries," Dr. McCartney responded. "But for the most part, books you can go out and buy another copy or replace. Museums you can't … [they represent] a point in time. It's a time machine that allows you to travel cheaply and easily into different times." And, she added, its holdings are "irreplaceable."


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

More by Leslie Newell Peacock

  • Support Central High School's art program: Shop tonight

    Call it #givingThursdayto Central High: The art faculty and students at Central High School are selling their work TONIGHT to raise money to buy art supplies for the school. The prices range from $1 up! There will also be a silent auction of work by Central High instructors Jason McCann, Amanda Heinbockel, Leron McAdoo, Loni Rainey, Stacey Mitchell, Don Enderson, Karen Terry and Rex DeLoney, and LRCH alumni Laura Raborn, Jennifer Perren, Lizzie Gillum and others.
    • Dec 8, 2016
  • Santa-sized 2nd Friday Art Night: Richard Leo Johnson, Rex Deloney, McLeod anniversary, the Nog-Off and more

    Prepare for a busy 2nd Friday Art Night tomorrow night, where folks will be celebrating Matt McLeod Fine Art's first anniversary, listening to the Arkansas Chamber Singers at the Old State House Museum, prefacing a performance by Richard Leo Johnson with an exhibition of his photographs at the Butler Center Galleries, hearing a talk and demonstration by Robert Bean about his creative process at Arkansas Capital Corp., and slinging back eggnog while seeing new works by Rex Deloney at the Historic Arkansas Museum. Read more about Johnson, the Chamber Singers and 2nd Friday Art Night here.
    • Dec 8, 2016
  • Pantry's Bohm buys Hillcrest Artisan Meats

    Tomas Bohm, owner of Czech and German eateries The Pantry in West Little Rock and The Pantry Crest in Hillcrest, will take over the space now occupied by Hillcrest Artisan Meats at 2807 Kavanaugh Blvd. next year. Brandon Brown and his wife, Tara Protiva-Brown, will continue to operate H.A.M. until the end of the year; Bohm hopes to reopen under a new name sometime in February.
    • Dec 6, 2016
  • More »

Readers also liked…

Most Shared

  • World leaders set to meet in Little Rock on resource access and sustainable development

    Next week a series of meetings on the use of technology to tackle global problems will be held in Little Rock by Club de Madrid — a coalition of more than 100 former democratic former presidents and prime ministers from around the world — and the P80 Group, a coalition of large public pension and sovereign wealth funds founded by Prince Charles to combat climate change. The conference will discuss deploying existing technologies to increase access to food, water, energy, clean environment, and medical care.
  • Tomb to table: a Christmas feast offered by the residents of Mount Holly and other folk

    Plus, recipes from the Times staff.
  • Fake news

    So fed up was young Edgar Welch of Salisbury, N.C., that Hillary Clinton was getting away with running a child-sex ring that he grabbed a couple of guns last Sunday, drove 360 miles to the Comet Ping Pong pizzeria in Washington, D.C., where Clinton was supposed to be holding the kids as sex slaves, and fired his AR-15 into the floor to clear the joint of pizza cravers and conduct his own investigation of the pedophilia syndicate of the former first lady, U.S. senator and secretary of state.
  • Reality TV prez

    There is almost nothing real about "reality TV." All but the dullest viewers understand that the dramatic twists and turns on shows like "The Bachelor" or "Celebrity Apprentice" are scripted in advance. More or less like professional wrestling, Donald Trump's previous claim to fame.
  • Arkansas archeologist does his job, is asked to leave

    Amid Department of Arkansas Heritage project.

Latest in Cover Stories

Visit Arkansas

View Trumpeter Swans in Heber Springs

View Trumpeter Swans in Heber Springs

Magness Lake, in Heber Springs, is a magnet for swans

Event Calendar

« »


  1 2 3
4 5 6 7 8 9 10
11 12 13 14 15 16 17
18 19 20 21 22 23 24
25 26 27 28 29 30 31

Most Viewed

Most Recent Comments

  • Re: The Observer

    • So this is for your article you put out right after trump got elected. It…

    • on December 10, 2016
  • Re: Only Arkansas law makes same-sex couples different

    • Nancy Colburn aka, Nancy richard colburn, or nlcolburn@gmail.com. Has a pile of shit husband who…

    • on December 10, 2016
  • Re: Arkansas medical marijuana supporters are back

    • ORDER YOUR PRODUCTS AT VERY GOOD PRICES WITH GUARANTEED DELIVERY WORLDWIDE. email at:(jonesjacks155@gmail.com) email at:(jonesjacks155@gmail.com)…

    • on December 10, 2016

© 2016 Arkansas Times | 201 East Markham, Suite 200, Little Rock, AR 72201
Powered by Foundation