Art and archaeology museum seeks reaccreditation

Sunday, August 24, 2008 | 5:13 p.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — Within an hour on Wednesday afternoon, 10 visitors — eight adults, a preschooler and an MU student — entered the MU Museum of Art and Archaeology and walked up dozens of steps to make their after-lunch art pilgrimages on the second floor, where exhibits are grouped according to their places of origin on a world map. One can make a journey through civilizations and times, starting with a rainy night on a Japanese wood block print and finishing with the warmth of an amber yellow, ancient Greek glass plate. 

The museum has stood off Ninth Street for more than half a century since it opened in 1957. But with more than 14,000 objects in its permanent holdings and even more items on temporary loan, the museum is unable to share with the public all that it has to offer.

“Only a very small fraction can be displayed at any one time; normally that fraction is less than 3 percent,” museum director Alex Barker said.

The Museum of Art and Archaeology is the only nationally accredited museum in mid-Missouri. And this year it began the process of gaining reaccreditation by the American Association of Museums. It’s an important process; losing accreditation would affect the number of grants received, the worth of traveling exhibits available to the museum and its ability to attract professionals to work there.

The association accredits museums across the country every 10 years. This year is the MU museum’s year of self-study, which is the crucial first step of the reaccreditation process.

With collections information and museum governance having been examined in spring and summer, what is left for Barker and his colleagues to work on are mostly external issues, the most important of which are “dimensions of the public perception of the museum.”

Barker said MU students, schoolchildren and the general public each make up about a third of the museum’s attendance. The museum mission statement makes the same point: it “helps students, scholars and the broader community” to experience art and artifacts firsthand.

The reaccreditation may further that goal through “collections planning.” That, Barker said, means collecting certain kinds of objects that will connect with specific audiences.

“AAM recommends (collections planning), and we are just beginning now. We’ll create a formal document that says we are going to do this.”

The results of self-study will be submitted for review by an association commission next January or February, and they will also be assessed on-site by visiting peer reviewers. In a letter addressed to museum patrons, Barker understandably defined the reaccreditation as “an exhaustive and sometimes exhausting process,” but he quickly added that it ensures “the highest level of professionalism.”

Back in 2002, budget cuts at the museum threatened its accreditation. MU cut its budget by $169,000, or 42 percent. MU provides all the financial support for the museum’s day-to-day operations, and those cuts forced it to shorten its hours drastically and to reduce its staff by half.

The funding was not restored fully until 2006.

“The university was in a difficult position in terms of funding,” Barker said, “but our funding is back to the (full) level again. The university (took) a closer look and (decided) that the museum is an important part of its mission.”

Barker was referencing a 2007 resolution passed by the UM Board of Curators, which states that “the Museum of Art and Archaeology is a valued, integral and permanent part of the university.”

During the past two years, the museum has doubled the number of PhDs and educators on its staff, and it also has resumed its once-stalled research programs.

Barker reflected on the recent fiscal difficulties that the museum has been able to overcome.

“We were not facing a budget crisis any greater than any other departments. Everybody faces some challenges,” he said. “We are in the same boat as everyone else. That’s actually a good thing.”

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