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University of Arkansas Museum

The University of Arkansas Museum at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville (Washington County) developed from a geology teaching collection begun in 1873 for university students. Housed in Old Main, the collection grew to include not only rocks, minerals, and fossils, but also zoological specimens, cultural and historical objects, and archaeological artifacts, with a particular emphasis on objects and specimens from Arkansas. The collections were then made available to students, researchers, and exhibit designers for use in university classes, for study by researchers, and for exhibit loans. The collections were once on public display at UA but are now only open to researchers and available to loan for other institutions for exhibition and research.

Professor Francis L. Harvey was the founder of the museum. Harvey managed the museum until he left the university in 1885. Harvey taught geology and biology, and to assist students in identifying rocks and minerals, he organized a geology cabinet of Arkansas specimens, particularly those of economic value to the state. Geology professor Seth Meek served as curator of the museum from 1885 until 1896. The Harvey and Meek rock and mineral specimens are the oldest cataloged specimens in the museum’s collections. Meek and his successor as administrator of the museum, Professor Albert H. Purdue, considerably increased the museum’s holdings in rock, mineral, fossil, plant, and animal specimens. The growing collections were kept and displayed on the top floor of University Hall (now called Old Main). The museum had two other curators after Purdue, but it had fallen to the care of the geology department by 1925.

That year, university president John C. Futrall asked Professor Samuel C. Dellinger if he was interested in being curator of the museum in addition to his teaching responsibilities, with no additional compensation. Dellinger accepted the appointment. Although a zoologist, Dellinger developed an interest in Arkansas archaeology. He organized archaeological excavations in the river bottoms of Garland County, the bluff shelters of northwestern Arkansas, and the mounds and village sites of eastern Arkansas. Because of Dellinger’s efforts, the museum holds an extensive collection of Arkansas archaeological artifacts and is a leading resource for Mississippi Period archaeological research. Dellinger strengthened other museum collections with acquisitions such as bird egg sets and mollusks in zoology, quartz crystals in geology, African and Plains Indian objects in ethnology, pressed glass in history, and Greco-Roman and Mimbres ceramics in archaeology. In 1930, some exhibits and collections were moved to the new Agriculture Building. In 1935, the museum moved to the basement of the library in the new Vol Walker Hall, with dedicated spaces for exhibits, areas for exhibit preparation, workrooms, and secure collections storage. In 1949, an assistant curator was hired; this was the first paid staff member of the university museum. In 1955, the museum moved back to University Hall.

Dellinger retired in 1957, and Dr. Charles R. McGimsey was appointed as the part-time museum curator. In 1960, McGimsey was appointed as full-time director. Under McGimsey, the museum conducted field schools at archaeological sites throughout Arkansas, adding to the collections accordingly. McGimsey expanded the collections in all areas, with the acquisition of mammal skins and skulls in zoology, specimens representative of the mineral resources of Arkansas in geology, Mexican masks and ceramics in ethnology, and textile arts and production in history. The collections and curatorial functions were moved back to Vol Walker Hall in 1969 when the library moved into its new building. The museum administration offices and exhibits remained in University Hall until 1975, when they moved to Hotz Hall.

Under McGimsey, the paid staff grew to include an assistant director, a preparator, a museum registrar, and three part-time curators. McGimsey introduced professional museum practices to the museum with development of a collections management policy, registration procedures, progressive five-year plans, and museum accreditation. McGimsey supported collections-based research by museum staff and university faculty with a program of scholarly publications. Museum staff offered museology courses that trained students who went on to staff many local, regional, and state museums.

In 1983, McGimsey was appointed as the full-time director of the Arkansas Archeological Survey, and Dr. Johnnie Gentry, formerly the museum’s assistant director, was named director of the museum. Under Gentry, outreach programs expanded to include guided tours of exhibits, classes, field trips, traveling exhibitions, and the Discovery Room for children. The collections grew with the acquisition of bird study skins in zoology, a comprehensive collection of rocks and minerals in geology, and Central and South American ethnographic objects in ethnology. Staff upgraded museum collections storage and digitized catalog records to make collections data more accessible and available to researchers worldwide.

In 1986, the museum administration offices and exhibits moved from Hotz to the old Men’s Gymnasium (Field House), where they remained until 2003, when the university administration closed these public functions of the museum for budget reasons. In 2001, the collections had moved from Walker Hall to a purpose-built facility in the Arkansas Archeological Survey building. The collections were not closed in 2003 when the museum’s public programs were, and the museum collections are today under the direction of the Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences. The collections remain open and are used by university classes, researchers, and other institutions for exhibit loans. In early 2015, the museum hosted its first “open house,” allowing members of the general public to see some of the artifacts held there.

For additional information:
Hale, Harrison. University of Arkansas, 1871–1948. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Alumni Association, 1948.

Joenks, Laurinda. “Wonders Abound: UA Opens Museum Collections for Public Tours.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (Northwest Arkansas Edition), March 3, 2016. Online at http://www.nwaonline.com/news/2016/mar/03/wonders-abound-ua-opens-museum-collecti/ (accessed March 8, 2016). 

Leflar, Robert Allen. The First 100 Years: Centennial History of the University of Arkansas. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1972.

Mainfort, Robert C., Jr. Sam Dellinger: Raiders of the Lost Arkansas. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2008.

"Museum Collections." University of Arkansas. http://museum.uark.edu/ (accessed March 8, 2016).  

Reynolds, John Hugh, and David Yancey Thomas. History of the University of Arkansas. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas, 1910.

University of Arkansas Museum Archives, Fayetteville, Arkansas.

Mary Suter
University of Arkansas Museum Collections

Last Updated 3/22/2017

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