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MU museums' priceless artifacts make move a challenge

Friday, June 28, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 9:49 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, October 1, 2013
MU's Museum of Art and Archaeology and Museum of Anthropology will be relocated to the former Ellis Fischel Cancer Center.

COLUMBIA — Thousands of ancient artifacts, famous paintings and archaeological remnants in two prized MU museums soon will receive a new home, but it's not a move that everyone is happy about.

The Museum of Art and Archaeology, the Museum of Anthropology and the Museum Support Center will pack up their collections and move into the former Ellis Fischel Cancer Center, now known as Mizzou North, at Garth Avenue and Business Loop 70. The move is part of the first wave of Renew Mizzou, a $22.85 million project that will include major renovations to Jesse, Pickard and Swallow halls

The decision to move the museums to Mizzou North triggered criticism from MU faculty and community members, who worry about the museums' future. MU spokeswoman Mary Jo Banken said the museums will remain at the former Ellis Fischel building "for the foreseeable future." It remains unknown whether they will ever return to the main campus.

While the Ellis Fischel building could offer more space for housing the museums' collections, most of which are in storage, the old hospital needs significant updates to serve as a proper museum that is safe and secure for invaluable art pieces.

And relocating the museums from the center of campus could limit their accessibility for MU courses and nearby Columbia schools that incorporate the collections into their curriculum. 

Despite the concerns, Michael O'Brien, dean of the College of Arts and Science and the director of the Museum of Anthropology, is optimistic it will work out.

"I think in the end, this will be an excellent arrangement for everybody," he said. "At least I hope so." 

Museum of Art and Archaeology

One of the most renowned museums in Missouri, Pickard Hall's Museum of Art and Archaeology houses more than 15,000 pieces from the Paleolithic period to modern times.

Pickard Hall was home to MU's chemistry department, and experiments in the 1900s left lingering radiation in the walls, its attic and beneath the floor boards. Although the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 2011 said the amount of radiation in Pickard Hall was safe, MU officials asked for more time to clear out the entire building and conduct further tests.

Plans call for completing the museum's move by the end of the year.

“Since we now have available, workable space in the former Ellis Fischel Hospital, we have determined the most effective way to continue necessary testing in Pickard is to completely empty the building during the process,” Gary Ward, associate vice chancellor for facilities, wrote in a news release. 

The large scope of the inventory and limited space in Pickard Hall allow the museum to display only 3 percent to 6 percent of its collection at any given time, director Alex Barker said. The rest is packed into the museum's storage rooms. 

One of the storage rooms is a small space solely devoted to paintings. Several rows of vertical fence-like racks can be pulled out to hang dozens of paintings from floor to ceiling. One of the paintings in this high-density storage room is a portrait of former Missouri Gov. David R. Francis, for whom Francis Quadrangle was named.

Two other storage rooms have scores of cabinets and drawers that contains thousands of artifacts ranging in size and age. One contains non-Western pieces and the other materials from all over the world. An oversize woven mask from Melanesia, smeared with paint and mud, sits on one of the storage room cabinets as the staff prepares it for the move. Barker said they need to build a crate around the delicate mask, which dates back to the early 20th century, so it can be safely moved.

"We're preserving things that weren't designed to be preserved," Barker said, referring to the mask. "We have to stabilize the material without changing the inherent character of the piece." 

There are three main factors — light, temperature and humidity — that museums have to control to preserve art. Barker said the staff tries to keep the building's temperature and humidity as constant as possible. 

"Changing temperatures are bad, but changing humidity is worse," he said. 

Significant changes in humidity cause artifacts to expand and contract, resulting in damaging cracks. Digital and analog loggers around the museum keep track of temperature and humidity. Those will have to be installed at Ellis Fischel.

The museum acquires most of its pieces from donations, some from the artists themselves. American watercolorist Keith Crown painted a work specifically for the Museum of Art and Archaeology that depicts the museum and some of its collection.

The museum's display has 11 permanent galleries, including an ancient art gallery, a cast gallery, a medieval and Byzantine gallery and a European and American art gallery. Collections are rotated through the museum's three exhibition spaces.

The European and American art gallery is one of the largest in the museum. It has pieces from the internationally recognized Samuel H. Kress collection, which was given to MU in 1961 and is "the nucleus of the National Gallery of Art," Barker said.

"The Kress collection of Renaissance paintings is hugely important," Barker said. "In many ways, receiving that collection of masterpieces transformed what had been a study collection of ancient art into a true art museum." 

The cast gallery is also a distinguished collection. Plaster replicas of Greek and Roman figures, some standing more than 10 feet tall, are on display in the ground-floor gallery. 

"The cast gallery is an oddity," Barker said. "They are very high-quality reproductions, because they are done from the original material." 

Casts from original sculptures are also something that museums no longer allow, because the replication process can damage the originals. The gallery belongs to the Department of Art History and Archaeology, but the Museum of Art and Archaeology has managed it for about 30 years, Barker said. 

The American Association of Museums accredited the Museum of Art and Archaeology in the 1970s. Of roughly 17,000 museums in the U.S., only 700 are accredited. Accreditation from the group "brings national recognition to a museum for its commitment to excellence, accountability, high professional standards, and continued institutional improvement," according to the museum's website. 

'Unethical, inexcusable' versus 'a change in mindset'

Larry Stebbing, assistant preparator for the Museum of Art and Archaeology, said the move is a terrible idea.

"This is the jewel and crown of the university," Stebbing said. "It's the third-largest art collection in the state of Missouri. It's a beautiful little place."

Although the former Ellis Fischel building has more square footage than Pickard Hall, Stebbing said more space doesn't necessarily mean the museum can display more of its collections.

"We have a net 15 percent reduction in the amount of display space we have," he said. "The people involved in making decisions on this are thinking in two dimensions. Art is displayed in three dimensions, and we don't have enough overhead space to put up two dozen different things."

Stebbing deemed Ellis Fischel "a wholly inappropriate place to put the art." 

"There's steam lines, water lines and duct valves in every place we would put the art," he said. "That is a standard in the industry not to stick stuff under those kind of utilities."

Stebbing said he and other staff members are calling Ellis Fischel "Mucinex," a nickname that came out of "museum annex." 

Stebbing not only sees a problem with housing art in an unfit building, but he also worries about what the move itself will do to the collections. 

"This move will put the whole museum at risk," he said.  

Stebbing also said no one at the museum was consulted before MU declared that it must move, resulting in uninformed decision-making.

"I think whoever decided that we would be out by the end of the year really did think that we would just drop some small things in cardboard boxes wrapped in newspaper and that it'd be as easy as moving the family china," Stebbing said. "But it's not." 

Stebbing said he recently learned that MU is soliciting bids from companies that could perform the move.

The cast gallery will be one of the most difficult collections to move because the items are extraordinarily heavy and delicate. One of the solid marble statues, the Bathing Nymphs, weighs close to a ton, museum guard Lucas Gabel said.

Barker said the statues will need to undergo a rigging process that involves strategically placing straps and ropes so movers can transport them.

"If you rig them too tightly or in the wrong place, straps could dig into the plaster," Barker said.

Museum guard Gabel agreed there was a lack of consultation. "There are people making decisions that have never stepped foot in this museum."

He also said the timetable to move out by the end of this year is unreasonable.

"We can't possibly move all of this in six months," Gabel said. "I don't see a way to renovate, reinforce the floors here so we can move, as well as give preparators time. Those three tasks make for an extremely tall order." 

Stebbing summed up the decision to move the museum as "unethical, inexcusable and aesthetically strange." 

While Stebbing and Gabel are deeply concerned about how the move will affect the museum and its collections, O'Brien sees it differently.

"I think there's a lot of positives involved in the move, including the fact that you have two great museums housed under the same roof," O'Brien said. "It's one-stop shopping for the museum world."

O'Brien said he fully expects that Ellis Fischel will be able to accommodate everything in the Museum of Anthropology and in the Museum Support Center, located on Rock Quarry Road just south of Stadium Boulevard. 

"I don't think (the move) will affect operations once we get relocated and open," he said. "I think it will be just great."

O'Brien also said Ellis Fischel will provide a lot of close parking for visitors, which is a problem on campus. He added that sometimes it takes people longer to get across campus than the eight minutes it takes to drive to Mizzou North.

"It's a change in mindset," he said. "You have to get people used to the idea that the museums are no longer on campus, but they're eight minutes away." 

Museum of Anthropology and Museum Support Center

Now located in Swallow Hall, the Museum of Anthropology will join the Museum of Art and Archaeology in Ellis Fischel.

The Museum of Anthropology also has to store the majority its collection. What isn't on display in Swallow Hall is kept off-site at the Museum Support Center, which also is set to move into the former Ellis Fischel.  

O'Brien said the 23-year-old support center is not in the best condition. Once renovated, Ellis Fischel could be a better place for the artifacts, he said.

The support center houses most of the Museum of Anthropology's collection. the center is a large warehouse where thousands of boxes rest on rows of metal shelving more than 10 feet high.

"All museums have collections that are way too big to display," Assistant Curator Brandy Tunmire said. "We're unique because we let you see what's in storage."

The center opens its doors to MU students, researchers and the general public. Most museum storage facilities don't do that, Tunmire said. 

According to its website, the museum is the only anthropology museum in Missouri and one of few in the Midwest. Its archaeological collection is the largest holding of prehistoric Missouri artifacts in the world, including millions of items dating from 9,000 B.C. to modern times. Basketry, weapons, masks and textiles are among its ancient artifacts.

The Grayson Archery Collection is one of the most distinguished collections housed in the support center. Collections Manager Audrey Gayou said it contains about 3,000 arrows and 2,500 bows from six continents. The oldest item is a Persian bow from 1300 A.D., which Gayou said is in remarkable condition for its age.

"We are so lucky to have this collection," Tunmire said. "It gets more regular people to come visit us at the MSC."

Very little of the Grayson Archery Collection is actually on display at the Museum of Anthropology because the display cases are too small for the bows.

One of the most unique items in the support center is a green 1975 Ford Econoline van named "Ghost Dancing." Author and former MU English professor William Trogdon drove the van around the United States while writing his bestselling book, "Blue Highways," under the pen name William Least Heat-Moon. The support center received the van in 1994.

"An artifact is anything and everything used and modified by humans," Gayou said.

The support center also has a controlled environment to protect the artifacts.

"We have optimum preservation conditions," Tunmire said.

The permanent exhibition in Swallow Hall focuses on Native American and Missouri history. Handmade Native American blankets with intricate and colorful patterns are hung in one of the dimly lit display cases. Other cases house woven basketry, pottery and guard sticks.

The exhibit in Swallow Hall is scheduled to move out by June 1, 2014. The support center's holdings won't be moved until faculty with temporary offices at Mizzou North can return to Jesse Hall, which is being renovated now, O'Brien said.

That is two years down the road or so, he said.

Educational accessibility 

Because the museums are in the center of campus, MU courses and nearby schools integrate tours into their curriculum.

"As an academic museum, the research and teaching functions are central to what we do, and that's ultimately how we value individual works in the collection," Barker said. 

Rachel Harper, coordinator of the humanities sequence in the Honors College, believes the museums will lose their educational benefit to the campus when they move to Business Loop 70. She uses the Museum of Art and Archaeology to help her students understand the "material culture" of the humanities.

"Every year, we set up tours with the curators for all of the students enrolled in the sequence," Harper said. "The curators do a wonderful job showing collections that match the time period that we're covering."

She said the school takes 250 to 275 students to Pickard Hall every semester.

Moving the museum "will completely make it unavailable to students," Harper said. "The benefit of having the museum locally on campus is that we can take students during the class period for a tour."

With no plan for the museum's return to campus, Harper questions its future. 

"The move of the museum to north campus without a plan for return is essentially a death sentence for the museum," Harper said. "You can't use the collections as we have in the past."

Even if moving to Mizzou North would allow the museum to display more of its collections, Harper would rather keep it on campus where it's easily accessible to students.

Lee Expressive Arts Elementary School, which is five blocks away from the museums, frequently schedules tours of the exhibits.

Ann Mehr, Lee Elementary art specialist, said the Museum of Art and Archaeology is the school's official Partner in Education.

"The museums have such a powerful effect on learning because the children learn that throughout time and in all cultures, people basically have the same needs and celebrations," Mehr said. "It's an authentic learning opportunity in a sea of virtual learning for these kids."

She said each grade visits the museums at least twice a year. 

"The second-graders do a unit on literacy through the historical development of jazz, and we start that unit in the Africa section of the museum," she said. "We talk about geometric patterns and traditions and ceremonies."

Fifth-graders do a kind of capstone project with the Museum of Art and Archaeology, selecting an individual piece to research and prepare a talk about.

"Once the kids have adopted an artifact and talked about it, they feel so very confident about being able to discuss art and use art vocabulary," she said.

Having the museums on campus not only makes them walkable for Lee Elementary students, but it also exposes the children to higher education, Mehr said. 

"When the children go on the Mizzou campus, they gain a familiarity with higher education that will make them comfortable attending universities in the future," she said. 

She also hopes that plans for bringing the museums back to campus will become more clear. "It's vital for the health of the campus as well as the health of downtown."

"I appreciate the fact that they're going to clean up Pickard, but it seems that one thing that the people I have talked to on campus and at Lee want to understand is a timeline to get the museums back to campus," Mehr said.

Turning a hospital into a museum 

Major changes will be required before the former Ellis Fischel building can serve as museum. Of the $22.85 million budget for Renew Mizzou, $1.5 million has been allocated for moving the Museum of Art and Archaeology and renovating the hospital building, according to the news release. Karlan Seville, spokeswoman at MU Campus Facilities, said the cost for moving the Museum of Anthropology is unknown. 

O'Brien said he and other museum staff are figuring out exactly what kind of renovations need to be done. 

He said some walls will have to be taken out to accommodate foot traffic through the exhibits. 

"You have to build displays," he said. "You've got to look around and decide what walls need to be taken down and moved. There's a lot of work that will have to go into that."

Banken, the MU spokeswoman, said Campus Facilities is assessing the old Ellis Fischel building. Ward told Banken that he knows some changes will need to be made in the air conditioning and heating systems. Some walls also will have to be moved to accommodate the huge statues, she said.

"They're assessing," Banken said, "and once they know exactly what will need to be done they'll call for bids for the work."

Supervising editor at Scott Swafford.


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