Leaving the past in the past

Jane Biers retires from MU’s Museum of Art and Archaeology after 38 years
Wednesday, May 3, 2006 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 12:18 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

Archaeology has taken Jane Biers many places in her life; from the forgotten Roman outposts of England, where she witnessed her first excavations, to the sprawl of Athens, where she met her husband, to the fledgling young museum of an American university town, where she carved out her place in the world.

When she stepped down as interim director of MU’s Museum of Art and Archaeology last month, Biers was retiring for the second time from a university career that spanned more than 3½ decades.

It was language that first drew Biers, 67, down the winding career path that would lead her to Columbia — not the romance of digging up ancient treasures, nor the adventurous crack of a bullwhip. In the late 1950s, she was growing up in Oxford, England, where Latin was a required part of high school-level curriculum.

“It wasn’t that I always wanted to be an archaeologist,” Biers said. “It’s just I sort of progressed from Latin to learning (ancient) Greek to learning ancient history.”

She was in the right place at the right time: a town home to one of the oldest and most reputable universities for the study of classical literature, philosophy and history — or “Greats.” Biers attended Oxford University for her undergraduate degree. At Oxford, she was granted the opportunity to work at important new dig sites: St. Albans, once home to the Roman city of Verulamium, and Fishbourne, a first-century villa likely inhabited by the local Roman puppet king.

In the 1960s, Biers said, the big trend in British higher education was to attend an American graduate school. She opted to study at the University of California-Berkeley, where she lived for two years before receiving a fellowship to attend the American School of Classical Studies in Athens. It was during a six-week excavation cycle at a Roman bath in Corinth, just south of the Greek capital, that Biers — then Jane Chitty — met her future husband, a Connecticut student named Bill Biers.

Jane had been married for two years when Bill received an offer to teach in MU’s Department of Art History and Archaeology. Saul and Gladys Weinberg, the husband-and-wife team that founded the Museum of Art and Archaeology, asked Jane if she would serve as assistant curator of ancient art.

“It couldn’t have been better,” Biers said, “because what else would I have done here in this community? There was no position available for another Greek archaeologist. So I was very lucky. Very lucky.”

When Biers arrived in Columbia in 1968, the museum had no independent place to call its own. “Oh, it was very different,” she recalled. “It was four small galleries on the fourth floor of Ellis Library, is what it was. We were just kind of inaccessible and unknown over there.”

As Osmund Overby, professor emeritus of art history, put it, “You really had to know where it was to find it.”

Two years ago, Biers had been retired from her daily duties at the museum in Pickard Hall when she was called in for an appointment with Arts and Science Dean Richard Schwartz. The museum director, Marlene Perchinske, had accepted another job, leaving a legacy of job reductions and hours cutbacks implemented in response to severe budget cuts. It was a difficult time to be director, but Biers accepted, not wanting to leave the staff she had worked with for so many years out to dry.

“When (Biers) took over, she thought a priority should be to make the museum accessible to everyone,” said Susan Langdon, associate professor of art history and archaeology. Biers restored most of the museum’s original hours and worked to get back important positions lost in the cuts.

“It’s on a very firm floor and moving ahead very well thanks to the work she did,” Overby said.

On April 15, Biers ended her term as interim director, passing her duties to Alex Barker from the Milwaukee Public Museum. She said she will continue to work on the next edition of Muse, the museum’s annual bulletin.

“We expose students to original works of art, and that’s a totally different thing from seeing them in a book, or seeing them on a screen,” Biers said, reflecting on the goals she served during her long career at MU. “It’s just amazing, knowing where (the museum) has come from. It’s really a wonderful resource, and to have been part of that growth has been very rewarding.”

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