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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 The U of A, in a move that saved $340,542, closed down the museum's admittedly out-of-date facility, an old field house, and fired six employees.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."

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