Arkansas State University Museum
The Arkansas State University Museum, located on the Arkansas State University (ASU) campus in Jonesboro (Craighead County), holds significant historic, archaeological, and natural history collections hailing primarily from the state of Arkansas. One of the first museums in the Southeast to be accredited by the American Association of Museums (AAM), it is the largest and most comprehensive museum in northeast Arkansas.
The museum originated in 1933, opening under the name Arkansas State College Historical Museum as a creation of the Arkansas State College History Club. The fledgling museum was accorded prime space in the newly built Wilson Hall, where it mounted its first exhibits in four wooden cases. In 1948, the museum was incorporated under the name Arkansas State Museum and Historic Library, and the first director, Sudie Barnett, was appointed.
Collecting at the museum has been both opportunistic and strategic, depending on external factors and the selective interests of directors. In 1953, Jean Rosser Williams, an ASU associate professor of chemistry, was appointed director. Her interests in geological and archaeological specimens are evident in current displays. Dr. Eugene Wittlake directed the museum from 1959 to 1980. Wittlake saw the museum’s potential as a stage for student learning and involved students in sorting through museum collections records, producing exhibits, and giving tours. He argued successfully for additional staff positions, bringing the total number to five by 1978.
The museum came into national recognition in 1973, when it was accredited by the AAM. As a prerequisite for accreditation, the ASU Board of Trustees legally recognized the museum as an integral part of the university and issued a statement of permanence on June 8, 1973. However, the museum encountered precarious times during the years from 1976 to 1982; it was temporarily closed in 1976. Through the years, the museum expanded and retracted within Wilson Hall and other campus locations and ultimately moved in 1980 to the Dean B. Ellis Library building, Learning Resources Center, where it currently resides. While the west wing of the Dean B. Ellis Library was renovated to accommodate it, its collections were dispersed in storage, and the museum became vulnerable to budget-driven scrutiny felt campus wide. Dr. Larry Ball, appointed acting director for the 1980 spring term, faced uphill negotiations as he rallied energies and resources against talk of closure, and he succeeded.
Dr. Charlott Jones was appointed director in 1983. Jones’s accomplishments in the ASU Museum reflect an affiliation with new and revolutionary philosophies that were reshaping museums throughout the U.S., driven by AAM’s new ideals and tactics of public education and community involvement. During Jones’s tenure, museum educator Mona L. Fielder masterminded the acquisition of the museum’s most readily recognized artifact: the skeletal remains of a mastodon, fondly christened “Mona.”
Jones retired in 1999, and in 2001, Dr. Ruth Hawkins, director of Delta Heritage Initiatives and formerly the Vice President for Institutional Advancement at ASU, assumed interim directorship of the museum while carrying out her other duties. Hawkins ushered the ASU Museum to its next level, establishing under the ASU banner a system of four museums, or “Arkansas Heritage SITES,” of which the ASU Museum is the flagship entity. The three others are the Hemingway-Pfeiffer Museum and Educational Center in Piggott (Clay County), the Southern Tenant Farmers Museum in Tyronza (Poinsett County), and Lakeport Plantation near Lake Village (Chicot County).
Dr. Marti Allen took over as director of the museum after Hawkins and retired in 2022. After her retirement, Dr. Michael Reinschmidt was named the museum director.
Today, the ASU Museum presents 21,000 square feet of exhibits. Notable permanent exhibits include the history of early American settlement in Arkansas (“Living Off the Land”), “Old Town Arkansas,” the Mary Stack Gallery of Decorative Arts, and the hands-on exhibit “Earthquake! Are you Ready?” Special gallery features are iPod tours of Old Town Arkansas in English and Spanish. A member of the Arkansas Discovery Network funded by the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation, the ASU Museum hosts temporary hands-on children’s exhibits. The museum also produces student-curated exhibits as part of formal university classes taught by museum staff. All exhibits are free to the public.
For additional information:
Arkansas State University Museum. https://www.astate.edu/a/museum/ (accessed September 21, 2022).
Ball, Larry D., and William M. Clements. Voices from State: An Oral History of Arkansas State University. Jonesboro: Arkansas State University Press, 1984.
Dew, Lee A. The ASU Story: A History of Arkansas State University, 1909–1967. Jonesboro: Arkansas State University Press, 1968.
Edrington, Linda. Interview with Larry D. Ball, November 11, 1997. Transcript. Mid-South Center for Oral History, Jonesboro, Arkansas.
———. Interviews with Charlott Jones, October 15, 1997. Transcript. Mid-South Center for Oral History, Jonesboro, Arkansas.
Marti L. Allen
Arkansas State University Museum
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