An Insider’s Look at the University of Arkansas Museum
Founded in 1873 as a small geology teaching collection by professor Francis L. Harvey, the University of Arkansas Museum now houses a diverse collection of several million objects across the fields of archeology, ethnology, history, geology and zoology.
But many don’t realize just how much the museum has to offer the campus, surrounding community and researchers, or that it’s a key part of the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences.
While the museum does not have a traditional exhibition hall, there are four displays throughout the University of Arkansas campus and other collection materials are regularly exhibited in 20 locations across Arkansas, Oklahoma and Missouri. Museum staff also continuously provide research services, object loans, tours, class visits and public programming.
From its humble beginnings as an educational resource for university students, the museum’s geology collection alone has grown to now encompass over 14,000 specimens.
Some highlights include the recently designated Arkansas State Dinosaur Arkansaurus fridayi researched and described by U of A alumna ReBecca Hunt, a paleontologist with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management; an extraordinarily well-preserved 180 million-year-old crocodile fossil from Germany; and 5,700 minerals from U of A alumnus Hugh D. Miser.
View of the 180 million-year-old crocodile fossil found in Germany at a slate quarry.
Miser spent most of his career working for the United States Geological Survey and even had the mineral miserite named after him. Miser’s collection is just one example of many materials gathered in the field by the U of A community and later donated to the museum for future researchers.
To better understand the diversity of the collections and services offered, it’s worth taking an even deeper dive into the history of the museum.
With his arrival in 1925, Sam Dellinger, the museum’s sixth curator and chairman of the Department of Zoology for 30 years, continued the original purpose of the geology teaching cabinet. Despite his training as a biologist, Dellinger would ultimately provide his most significant contribution to the museum’s archeology collection. It is now the largest collection of Arkansas materials found anywhere, especially focused on whole pottery vessels from southeast and eastern Arkansas and fragile Ozark bluff shelter materials.
The museum also works closely with the Arkansas Archeological Survey and frequently hosts archeologists from around the state and beyond to study the collections. Such visits produce a variety of insights about pre-contact life in the region, from plant domestication to weaving traditions still seen in Native American basketry today.
Art and anthropology classes alike visit the zoology collections to hone their drawing skills and learn about anatomy through skeletal observations.
Archeologists compare difficult to identify animal bones from excavations with skeletons from the collection as well, while fish and snake specimens are loaned out to biology classes for instruction. Research specimens from the Department of Biological Sciences also comprise a large portion of the collections, from birds to coyotes in the region.
Touring the zoology collection today can be an insightful experience, as many of the animals that were originally collected are now protected, endangered, or extinct – such as the passenger pigeon (extinct in 1914) and the pangolin (the world’s most trafficked mammal today).
In an increasing number of cases, seeing and studying such animals is now only possible within a museum or zoo.
Regional and state history are also represented in the museum’s collections. Unique decorative arts native to the Ozarks and Arkansas are highlights, including basketry by nationally-recognized craftsman George Gibson and early 20th-century Niloak ceramics produced in Benton, Arkansas.
Objects like these bear striking stories, like the 200 pieces of artwork and other items sent on the Merci Train to the people of Arkansas from French citizens after receiving assistance post-World War II.
The museum also has a growing collection of historical U of A-related materials. The new RazorBACK to the 90’s exhibit, designed by a museum graduate assistant and located in Silas H. Hunt Hall, shares a great selection of some.
Finally, the ethnology collection provides an opportunity to study cultural materials from around the world.
Last fall, assistant professor of art Janine Sytsma’s “African Art, Museums, and Exhibition Practices” class researched materials that explore the rich cultural, linguistic and ethnic diversity of the African continent. Students assembled their findings and museum objects in an exhibit that is currently on display on the fifth floor of Old Main.
Three students from the class will also share their research at the museum’s Monthly Speaker Series in April.
By providing access to cultural and natural resources across space and time, the museum aims to foster the exploration and sharing of new and insightful perspectives and ideas.