Professors, Columbia parents want MU museums to return after renovations

Wednesday, July 17, 2013 | 8:37 p.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — About 50 professors, museum docents and other stakeholders convened Wednesday evening in Jesse Wrench Auditorium to discuss their concerns about renovations that will close Jesse, Swallow and Pickard halls in the fall.

To accommodate the $22.85 million Renew Mizzou project, MU's Museum of Anthropology and Museum of Art and Archaeology will move two miles north to the former Ellis Fischel Cancer Center on Business Loop 70 West. The center's space is now known as Mizzou North.

The Museum of Art and Archaeology will begin to move its collection in October, and the Museum of Anthropology will move in May 2014. 

Alex Barker, director of the Museum of Art and Archaeology, said the move was an imperfect but necessary solution. 

"When I balance those two things — my concern for the staff and making sure the Pickard Hall issues with radiation are fully documented, understood and addressed, versus moving away for campus for a time — it's a pretty easy choice for me," Barker said.

Radiation from experiments MU professors conducted in the early 20th century lingers in the walls and floors of Pickard. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission will work with MU to conduct more tests in hopes of taking the building off a radiation watch list. As the commission tests Pickard, Swallow Hall will be renovated to create more classroom and multipurpose space. 

Forum attendees said they were concerned about vague details surrounding Pickard's future. Because it is unknown how long radiation testing will take, there is no set timeline for the Museum of Art and Archaeology's return, said Jackie Jones, vice chancellor of administrative services. 

Art history professor Keith Eggener said he feared the museums' collections could "succumb to some sort of institutional inertia and just stay there."

Columbia community members shared his concerns. 

Peter Stiepleman, an assistant superintendent at Columbia Public Schools, said Lee Elementary takes frequent walking field trips to the museums. Many Lee parents have contacted the school system wondering when the museums will return to campus. 

"It would be helpful to understand — for our families — how long this is going to be for them," Stiepleman said.

Several parents of Lee students spoke at the meeting to praise the field trips and question if they will be able to continue when the museums move. 

Professors from multiple departments also said they will lose valuable teaching tools when the museums move. History professor Lois Huneycutt said she uses museum collections extensively in two of her undergraduate classes and will have to redesign her curriculum to accommodate the loss. 

"I can't walk students over and teach courses in the museums if the museums aren't on campus or downtown," Huneycutt said. "We've lost it for undergraduate teaching."

Michael O'Brien, dean of the College of Arts and Science and director of the Museum of Anthropology, said the college is exploring the possibility of leasing space downtown to set up a small-scale museum. After its renovation, Swallow Hall will also have space to host some of the museum's art exhibits on a rotating basis. 

"There is going to be a ton of space in Swallow — nooks, niches, walls, whatever you want to call them," O'Brien said. "I think it's going to be great." 

Astronomy professor Angela Speck said MU should commit to returning the museums to campus because the museums help bring together professors and the greater Columbia community.

"Here's one of those places where we have really good interaction, and we don't want to lose that," Speck said.  "If we lose that, we'll lose something that makes us really special."

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.

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