Officials: SIUE Museum is not closing

News-DemocratFebruary 11, 2014 

— Officials say the University Museum isn't going anywhere, even as a petition circulates to save it.

Southern Illinois University Edwardsville's museum collects art and cultural objects ranging from pre-Columbian Native American cultures to ancient Greece and China as well as contemporary artists, fossils and geologic samples. While the museum no longer has a gallery on campus, it displays artwork throughout the campus and loans items to businesses and organizations throughout the city as well, including The Bank of Edwardsville and Edwardsville City Hall.

In years past, the museum regularly displayed parts of its collection the university center. But Director Eric Barnett said once the university center stopped paying an attendant to watch the gallery, it was no longer secure for the artifacts to remain on display.

Now Barnett is retiring, and rumors have been rumbling throughout the university community that SIUE plans to close the museum program and sell off the collection. Resident Carrie Smith launched an online petition at Change.org to stop the closure and encouraged the public to attend Thursday's SIU board meeting at SIUE to express their support in person.

However, SIUE officials say the museum isn't going anywhere.

"We're not sure where this started, but there is no move to close the museum," said spokesman Doug McIlhagga.

On Tuesday, Chancellor Julie Furst-Bowe sent a memo assuring the university community that neither closing the museum nor selling off its collection is being contemplated.

"While it is true that museum director Eric Barnett is retiring at the end of this month, please be advised that the future of the museum is secure," Furst-Bowe wrote. "We are moving forward with the necessary process to hire a new director for the University Museum. We will review the need for additional staff members as well."

Furst-Bowe wrote that the administration wants to create an environment that provides even greater access to the museum's collection.

She also thanked Barnett for his years of services, "especially during this period of very limited resources."

Barnett is slated to speak before the board of trustees on Thursday. He said he does not have any direct information about the future of the museum, but that the university has not posted his position and has not replaced anyone who has retired from the museum staff in the last six years.

However, in September the board of trustees passed a resolution in support of the university museum in Carbondale, he said.

"I feel like they don't understand that we in Edwardsville also have a museum, and they should acknowledge that as well," Barnett said. "Just because we don't have a facility where we can do exhibitions doesn't mean we don't have a museum."

Just this week, Barnett said, he displayed eastern European icons and Egyptian hieroglyphs to a class to demonstrate visual and oral communication. Schoolchildren from the area visit the museum warehouse, and the next exhibit will be a student-curated show at the Edwardsville Art Center on African art.

Barnett called it a "constant education program as well as a stewardship of objects."

Barnett, 64, began working with the University Museum in 1982 as a graduate student and has been there ever since. Now at the time of his retirement, the University Museum's collection amasses more than 60,000 individual objects. Among the top pieces is a portrait of a clean-shaven Abraham Lincoln, painted at his Springfield home in 1860 right before the election -- smiling. They also recently had a piece of historic Chicago architecture returned that had been on loan to the U.S. State Department to decorate the ambassador's residence in Kiev, capital of Ukraine.

"It really is time that people recognize the potential for the use of the collection and act to help realize that potential," Barnett said.

The best way to do that, he said, would be to get a building. "But I don't know how they would do that, and it won't be me, since I'm retiring," he said.

Smith said she was grateful for the hundreds of people who've signed the petition in favor of the museum. She said the chancellor's statement "opens the way for the continuation of the University Museum" and encouraged people to attend the trustees' meeting to support Barnett.

Contact reporter Elizabeth Donald at edonald@bnd.com or 618-239-2507.

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