Editor's note: Emails were obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request and were copied verbatim.
SIUE is home to a museum collection that contains more than 50,000 cultural objects. Some of the pieces can be viewed by simply walking through campus, as they are displayed in various buildings and in a number of faculty offices. Because of this, the campus itself, rather than a specific building, is thought of as the museum.
Only a small portion of the collection is on display. Much like any other museum, the rest is stored away. Most of SIUE’s collection is housed in a building tucked away near Campus Police on Supporting Services Road. It is called the University Museum.
Earlier in the spring semester, some controversy surrounded the University Museum as members of the SIUE community believed the administration was looking to close it. A petition titled “Stop the closing of the Southern Illinois University of Edwardsville’s University Museum” was initiated on Change.org, which received 407 signatures before receiving the label “confirmed victory.”
Shortly after discovering the petition, Chancellor Julie Furst-Bowe addressed the issue via email.
“We are in the preliminary stages of exploring options regarding the museum,” Furst-Bowe wrote in a Feb. 11 email to the university community. “However, neither its closure nor the selling off of its valuable objects is being contemplated.”
Yet, after learning about the pending retirement of the University Museum’s former director, Eric Barnett, Furst-Bowe wrote in a Feb. 3 email to Interim Provost Ann Boyle and SIUE Foundation CEO Rachel Stack regarding the museum, “improving or even maintaining the current situation just isn’t one of our priorities.”
SIUE Foundation CEO Rachel Stack: “Mr. Magorium’s Emporium”
In a Jan. 30 email to the provost, Furst-Bowe wrote, “Now that Eric is gone, we should probably discuss the future of the museum…which looks like a big warehouse/flea market to me.”
Furst-Bowe said in a recent interview that she still believes the University Museum looks like a “warehouse/flea market.”
“It does. It isn’t anything like a formal museum that you would see in Chicago or St. Louis where things are all displayed and you could bring in groups of school children or college students to look at things,” Furst-Bowe said. “My understanding is that it was deliberate. They really went with this kind of warehouse concept with the idea that all of the different things from the museum would be on display in the campus. … The idea was that it would be just a place to store the items.”
Inside the University Museum, a few objects are housed in glass cases, while most others are kept on long, tall racks with shelves and drawers for organization. There is also a space devoted to framing artworks before they are transported to the campus core to be displayed.
On Feb. 3, Stack toured the University Museum, reporting to the chancellor shortly after her visit. She said the chancellor had not instructed her to do so.
“Part of it was curiosity,” Stack said. “I wanted to see it. I want to see all of the campus. … The museum is a public place. Everyone should be able to go there.”
In the email to the chancellor, Stack gave her opinion on the state of the museum and what should be done with it in the future.
“I think we should see what departments use it ([Barnett] mentioned archeology) and then start selling off the collection,” Stack wrote. “…It’s really not a value-add to the university except as a ‘Mr. Magorium’s Emporium’ type thing and even then, I doubt anyone goes over there. Just my opinion.”
Stack said she likened the museum to “Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium” because she was not expecting it to “look more like an archive.”
“It’s kind of a backwards compliment,” Stack said. “Have you seen the movie?”
Stack said she went to the museum because, as head of the foundation, she wanted to assess items from the Harrington collection, which is a large donation that belongs to the foundation but is housed in the museum. Stack said the only reason she reported to the chancellor after her visit is because Furst-Bowe is her boss.
Stack said she was surprised by the state of the museum.
“I was thinking there would be a focus,” Stack said.
Being from Chicago, Stack said she has been to a lot of museums, which led to her expectation that the University Museum would have a “focus.” Some examples she provided included Asian art or military regalia. The University Museum, however, houses objects such as reclaimed bottles and taxidermy in addition to works of art, according to Stack.
Stack said she thought items could be sold because she was not aware of their use in courses and had not seen them displayed anywhere on campus.
“There’s extraneous stuff that doesn’t seem like it’s being utilized,” Stack said. “Maybe it is and I don’t know who’s using it.”
Stack said the SIUE Foundation has the authority to liquidate donations depending on the donor agreement, but her suggestion to the chancellor was just “throwing around an idea before I realized how complicated that would be.”
“There was no intent on my part to sell anything,” Stack said.
Stack also reported in the email to the chancellor the types of objects that exist in the collection and their value.
“The artifacts that I saw are worth money—most of them are just not art objects. The student art is mixed in as well as architectural items, old electronics, etc.,” Stack wrote.
Stack mentioned two valuable art pieces within the museum collection: “a Rodin and a painting in the library.” Stack said Barnett pointed these pieces out to her during her visit.
“Eric said, ‘You need to go look at these other two things that are very valuable,’” Stack said. “We were having a conversation.”
Furst-Bowe responded to Stack’s Feb. 3 email writing, “…it sounds like you and I and Ann [Boyle] are in agreement relative to finding out what is being used and getting rid of the rest one way or another.”
Stack said nothing has been sold since the discussion between administrators began, but Barnett had sold some pieces. Stack said she does not anticipate any more pieces to be sold until a new director is hired.
“There’s a precedent,” Stack said. “Eric was selling objects, so that’s under the purview of the director.”
College of Arts and Sciences Dean Aldemaro Romero said the only pieces Barnett had sold were from the Harrington donation, which included objects that were misrepresented as authentic and valuable pieces, but were found to be fakes after further research.
Chancellor Julie Furst-Bowe: “In the discussion stage”
In a Feb. 10 email to the provost and Stack, Furst-Bowe wrote, “apparently someone is spreading rumors that we are going to sell all of the valuable art in the museum.”
Stack said, because it occurred back in February, she does not remember exactly how she responded to Furst-Bowe’s email.
“I do remember thinking, ‘This doesn’t seem like a big deal that I went over there to look at the collection,’ but apparently it was,” Stack said.
SIU President Glenn Poshard had heard students might picket the Feb. 13 board of trustees meeting to protest the selling of museum pieces, according to an email Executive Assistant to the Chancellor Kim Durr sent to Furst-Bowe.
Poshard called the chancellor’s office to get more information and, according to her email, Durr told him what had been decided at the previous week’s Chancellor’s Council meeting: “(1) that items will be retained that meet curricular needs; (2) all else will be gotten rid of; and (3) the department chairs have been asked for ideas on what to retain.”
Planning how to address the issue at the Foundation Executive Committee and board of trustees meetings, Furst-Bowe shared her working message with the provost and Stack.
“…the first step will be to catalog the collection and identify what materials are being used to meet curricular needs across all academic departments. Items that are not being used and have no real value could be ‘weeded’ similar to how we keep the collections current in the library,” Furst-Bowe wrote in a Feb. 10 email. “However, no decisions have made and no timetable has been established. All of this is very much in the ‘discussion’ stage. The discussion started when [Romero] informed me that the current museum director plans to retire at the end of the month.”
Museum pieces that have “value” were never part of the discussion, according to Furst-Bowe, but the selling of other pieces was being contemplated.
“If there really is stuff that no one is using…or it was just given to us and we never really knew what we were supposed to do with it, well then let’s try to figure out a way to sell it, to give it to other museums or somehow decommission it so we could take better care of the things we have, I think was the message. It was never to do anything with the valuable pieces,” Furst-Bowe said in an interview. “It was to do things with the things that — well, you’ve seen it — there’s a lot of stuff there that was just given to us.”
Furst-Bowe said that if objects from the museum were going to be sold, she would not actually be the person making that decision.
“Something like that would have to be a recommendation from someone that knows a whole lot more about museum artifacts than myself or any of the administrators that we have on campus,” Furst-Bowe said.
It would be up to the University Museum Director, Furst-Bowe said.
“We need for a director to come in and actually inventory what we have. Things that have value, we would definitely keep. Things that are being used in classes, definitely keep,” Furst-Bowe said. “That’s what the purpose of the museum [is], but there’s also a lot of things over there that were just donated by people that may or may not have any monetary value, that may or may not have any curricular value, and those are the things that a director is going to have to come in and say, ‘Maybe these would be better off at another museum.’”
According to Furst-Bowe, “museums do this type of thing very routinely.”
“I think the caveat is typically that if you do decide you’re going to sell something or trade something or whatever, what you get back enhances the museum,” Furst-Bowe said. “It wouldn’t be that we would sell museum pieces and use the money in other areas of the campus. It would all go back to, frankly, taking better care of what we have over there.”
Furst-Bowe said handling resources in this way is known as fund accounting.
“Hypothetically or potentially or whatever, none of this has ever been done or even seriously thought about as you can see, we don’t even have an inventory of what we have at this point, anything that we would possibly, potentially do with the museum would have to go right back into making the museum better, and that’s how it works everywhere on campus,” Furst-Bowe said.
The University Museum staff: “Too much work for one person”
Prior to his retirement in February, Barnett taught classes in museum studies in addition to serving as the only university staff member at the museum. He handled the workload with the help of two graduate assistants.
Romero and College of Arts and Sciences Director Craig Steiner met with the chancellor on Jan. 30 to discuss Barnett’s replacement and the possibility of adding more staff members to the museum.
Later the same day, Furst-Bowe emailed the provost about the meeting.
“I continue to be frustrated that Al spends his time on everything except our stated priorities – enrollment, retention, online, grants, fundraising, etc. Craig is also spending a lot of time on this museum…not good use of his time either,” Furst-Bowe wrote.
Steiner, however, said the University Museum is the “crown jewel” of the campus.
At their meeting, Romero showed the chancellor a 2009 report from an outside consultant in which the University Museum was assessed. He said the report displayed the need for additional staffing.
“We thought that she understood that the advice of that report needed to be followed, but then the whole thing blew up,” Romero said.
In a Feb. 10 email to Romero, Furst-Bowe wrote, “…we hope to be able to make better use of the collection with new staffing in this area.” However, on Feb. 14, Furst-Bowe emailed the provost about her reservations regarding the museum.
“I am concerned that if I were to start spending a lot of time on the museum, expectations would increase for staffing, a new building, etc.,” Furst-Bowe wrote.
Furst-Bowe said she has to be cautious because the state budget is uncertain.
“I wouldn’t want people to think that now this is suddenly my passion or the focus of where we’re going to put campus resources because we don’t have it, in all honesty, unless someone were to give us a wonderful donation, but with our state budget situation, I don’t want to raise expectations that suddenly we’re going to be able to hire 20 people to work in the museum or not,” Furst-Bowe said.
Furst-Bowe said she agrees with the 2009 report’s recommendation that increasing the staff is necessary, but there might not be enough money to do so.
“There weren’t any resources [in 2009] to implement the recommendations and, frankly, there aren’t really any more resources now,” Furst-Bowe said. “If you look at all of the different priorities that we have to fund as a campus and what’s been proposed from the state, which is either a flat budget, a zero-increase budget, or if this sales tax doesn’t go through, I’ve seen anywhere from a 9 to a 12 to a 20 percent budget reduction, which, frankly, means we won’t be adding staffing to any office on campus.”
Furst-Bowe said she immediately agreed with Romero and Steiner that the director needed to be replaced.
The SIUE University Museum Advisory Board is currently searching for the new director, and Furst-Bowe said other positions will be added as funds become available.
“I think what we’ve learned from this whole experience is if you put it on one person, and [Barnett] was a very good person, he took his work very seriously, but it’s too much work for one person — I think we’ve learned that — even with some very good student help,” Furst-Bowe said. “By the looks of the place, it was a struggle for one person to try to keep up with everything.”
Art and design professor Erin Vigneau-Dimick is serving as the interim director until the position is filled. She declined to comment.
Romero said he hopes to have a new director in place by sometime in fall 2014.
College of Arts and Sciences Dean Aldemaro Romero: “The museum reports to the college”
The University Museum’s stated goals include serving the research and educational needs of the campus community, as well as the greater community outside the campus.
In early February, Furst-Bowe charged the provost with finding out which SIUE departments were using the University Museum and for what purposes.
“I think that’s really what we need to focus on — how is the museum actually being used to support the classes that we teach and the academic programs?” Furst-Bowe said.
The provost spoke with Art and Design Chairwoman Barbara Nwacha, Historical Studies Chairwoman Carole Frick, Anthropology Chairwoman Jennifer Rehg and the School of Education, according to Furst-Bowe.
Romero said the department chairwomen called him to say the provost was asking questions about the museum. Being excluded from this discussion worried him because “these chairs are in my college, and the museum reports to the college.”
“It is not the best management practice to contact people without contacting the supervisor of those people,” Romero said.
In a Feb. 4 email to the provost, Furst-Bowe wrote, “no need to include Al on the calls – he is acting like it is his personal museum.”
Furst-Bowe said in an interview that Romero was not a part of the discussion because use of the University Museum is not isolated to the College of Arts and Sciences.
“If you compare it to the library, it isn’t as though one college or school is using it. I charged the provost with finding out sort of how the museum was being used in the curriculum thinking it would go beyond the College of Arts and Sciences, and it does is what we’re finding out,” Furst-Bowe said. “I don’t think there was any intent to leave him out of the process, but just thinking if it goes beyond the College of Arts and Sciences, it might be something that the provost should be looking into.”
Furst-Bowe said she did not see any issue in contacting the department chairs without first contacting Romero.
“The provost certainly has a right to contact a department chair and say, ‘We’re looking at how we might best staff the museum. How are you using the museum in your classes?’ I don’t know that we need to spend two administrators’ time,” Furst-Bowe said.
Despite referring to Romero as “Mr. Open and Transparent” in an email after he reported the provost for making calls to the chairs, Furst-Bowe said she and Romero have “a good working relationship.”
“We’ve traveled to Cuba together. I’m a great supporter of the work that he’s doing in CAS. I guess my only comment would be he’s got a very big college, you know, hundreds of faculty, thousands of students. Communication isn’t always perfect,” Furst-Bowe said. “Sometimes rumors start. I think he really tries to communicate, but I think sometimes with the hundreds of faculty and thousands of students, it gets to be a challenge.”
Furst-Bowe wrote in a March 4 email to Romero that “the museum fiasco” originated in the College of Arts and Sciences.
Romero said the college did not initiate the petition on Change.org.
“That was a student, actually, who posted that,” Romero said. “From there, it spread around.”
The student who started the petition is Carrie Smith, who works as a graduate assistant in the University Museum. She declined to comment.
Romero declined to comment on his working relationship with the chancellor.
“I am focused on the future, on getting all these people together [in the advisory committee], hiring the new people, raising money for the museum,” Romero said. “I really want to concentrate on the future.”
Looking back, planning ahead: “Not just some kind of warehouse”
Though she said in a Feb. 3 email regarding the museum, “improving or even maintaining the current situation just isn’t one of our priorities,” Furst-Bowe said in a recent interview that she would like to improve the University Museum.
“I’m [the] kind of person [who likes] to leave a situation better than when I started,” Furst-Bowe said. “I would like to see us make some improvements. It’s kind of been sitting there the way it’s been sitting for a long time.”
Furst-Bowe said she has learned quite a few things through this experience.
She said she realized “that it’s not just some kind of a warehouse out there with all kinds of stuff that nobody cares about, which in all honesty, was probably my initial impression. I just never heard much about it.”
Furst-Bowe said knowing that there are supporters of the museum is “actually kind of nice.”
“It’s good to know that if we are serious about finding out what we’ve got and improving the situation out there that we’re going to have a lot of people, frankly, on campus and in the community that would be willing to roll up their sleeves and help,” Furst-Bowe said. “That’s the impression I got.”
In a Jan. 30 email, Furst-Bowe wrote that the administration’s stated priorities include “enrollment, retention, online, grants, fundraising, etc.” She said in a recent interview that the University Museum might be helpful in the grants and fundraising areas, but not helpful for something like recruitment.
“I don’t know if the average undergraduate would care a whole lot about it. Maybe. Maybe a student that was interested in art or art history or history,” Furst-Bowe said. “I think probably more for graduate students, especially those who are actually in the museum studies program, that might be appealing because my understanding is that graduate students can go there and I don’t know if they are just like student-employees or if they’re interns, but they can actually go there and get some hands-on experience working with the artifacts.”
Furst-Bowe said the University Museum itself might not be impressive to potential students, but the art displayed around campus is.
“I definitely think the campus itself is very attractive to new students. I know when I came here for my job interview, I thought, ‘Wow. This is a beautiful campus,’ and the art was definitely a part of that,” Furst-Bowe said. “But to actually show perspective students the museum, I don’t think that would be a real selling tool at this point.”
Furst-Bowe said cataloguing and possibly “weeding” the collection is the next most necessary step for the museum.
“If we ever hope to have a more permanent type of home for the collection, I think we would have to know what exactly we want to keep,” Furst-Bowe said.
Romero said there has been discussion for some time about incorporating a specific building on campus in which to display objects from the museum, but “it hasn’t been a priority.” Even for Romero, he said there are other aspects of the museum he would rather focus on than adding a building.
“Right now, I think priority No. 1 for us is to have a full staff for the museum because without people, that’s not going to work,” Romero said. “No. 2 is to be able to finish the cataloguing of all the pieces of the museum and make that information and the pictorial aspect of that available through the Internet, so people can visit the museum virtually.”
Romero said cataloguing of the collection is about halfway completed. He said because the campus is the museum, having information available online is going to be useful in helping people locate pieces of the collection throughout the campus.
“I’m not crazy about necessarily having a building for it. I think we’ve been helped also by the fact that, with the expansion of the Art and Design Building, now we have an art gallery there. We have a place for exhibits,” Romero said. “It would be nice to have a building, but I wouldn’t put it at the top right now of priorities, especially in this fiscal environment.”
Furst-Bowe said the future of the University Museum will depend upon recommendations from the director.
“To just keep adding and adding things when you don’t really have staff to take care of them, when you don’t really know who’s using them, how they’re being used, that isn’t the best way to do business either, so we really need someone to come in and tell us what we have and how it can best be used,” Furst-Bowe said.