The University Museum highlights hands-on experiences

A large fossil of a trilobite, a type of arthropod that went extinct millennia ago.  

 The SIU campuses are surrounded by all kinds of sculptures and varieties of art.

    However, many students don’t realize that much of what they see is part of the University Museum collection.

    “There is no one place where the museum stuff is displayed. Instead, it’s really all over campus,” anthropology professor Cory Willmott said. “It’s really a collection. There’s the collection in a storage facility down by the police services. That is the bulk, maybe 90 percent is down there, and that’s a pretty normal proportion for museums.”

    According to University Museum Executive Curator Erin Vigneau-Dimick, the collections are distributed across all three SIU campuses and they sometimes loan out their collections to local supporters, as well as a couple of banks and some other museums.

   Both Willmott and Vigneau-Dimick agree that the hardest part about running the museum is the lack of staffing.

    “Unfortunately, the museum is chronically understaffed, and the current staff, who are fantastic, have only been there for about four or five years,” Willmott said.

    This lack of staffing makes it extremely difficult to place labels across the artifacts on campus, according to Willmott.

    “Given that there are literally thousands of artifacts out on campus that were not labeled previously, they’re just having a really hard time getting to all of them and being able to put adequate labels on them,” Willmott said.

    Vigneau-Dimick said the reason they weren’t previously labeled was due to the way people used to look at art.

    “A lot of times artwork that’s just up on the wall, it was just a long-standing policy to leave it unlabeled,” Vigneau-Dimick said. “It was an older way of thinking about art that people should just approach art with no interpretation.”

   However, there’s been a shift in the way people look at art, so they have to go through and take inventory of everything they have.

   “We’re doing an inventory of all the collections that are out on campus over the next couple of years, and as we move through the inventory process, we are placing labels that identify it as part of the museum’s collections, the artist, the date, the materials, stuff like that,” Vigneau-Dimick said. “Trying to give a little more information with everything.”

    There are many opportunities for students to help with the University Museum, according to Willmott.

    Anthropology students can choose to research items from the museum, and some have chosen to do this for their senior project where they have the option to make a museum exhibit.

    “A lot of universities have museums, but not all of them allow so many opportunities for students to get hands-on experience,” Willmott said. “So for me it’s not just a matter of looking at the stuff, it’s really getting the opportunity to learn how to handle it, how to document it, and learn how to research it.”

    Vigneau-Dimick has opportunities for students to work for the University Museum as well.

    “I have three graduate assistants per term and they primarily come out of the departments of museum studies, history, cultural heritage, resource management and art and design,” Vigneau-Dimick said. “The application is open to anyone, but I tend to hire graduate assistants who are interested in this career so that it gives them an experiential opportunity that moves them forward to internships and their potential jobs.”

    Integrative studies graduate student Dana Lewis, from St. Charles, Missouri, is one of these graduate assistants.

    “I’ve spent the past semester and a half as a graduate assistant for the University Museum and Department of Anthropology, so it’s a 50-50 split appointment,” Lewis said.

    Lewis said she spent her first semester primarily focusing on bringing more accessibility to the museum.

    “I spent the first semester over there working on a single project; cataloging the ethnology museum laboratory’s collection,” Lewis said. “So we’re transferring that over into the University Museum’s wider collection so it can be available to more students, a little bit more accessible, putting it in the database so you can do some cross-referencing and that sort of stuff.”

    Vigneau-Dimick said students get to gain experience through the museum by also having faculty bring students out to the storage facility that are in a class, are doing an independent study, or are doing their graduate thesis.

    “It’s a really great training ground for people that are interested to work with us, and that’s pretty unusual because some schools that have museum studies programs or students who are interested in this kind of career don’t have a museum collection on-campus that they can actually get experience working with,” Vigneau-Dimick said. “The scale of our collection is great for that.”

    Contact Erin Vigneau-Dimick at evignea@siue.edu for more information about the University Museum.

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