This year marks the 50th anniversary of the dedication of the Frank H. McClung Museum of Natural History and Culture, and the little-known campus resource is focusing its efforts on showing the campus community all that it has to offer.
Most students who trudge to a class in the auditorium of the museum never look up to appreciate the exhibits around them, let alone think about the thousands of historical artifacts just below their feet.
The basement rooms of the McClung Museum are home to an eclectic collection of more than 25,000 historic pieces and several million archaeological items, such as arrowheads and weapon fragments.
Each piece on the rows of fully lined shelves tells its own unique story, such as the Norden bombsight from World War II. During the war, the army used human hair to fashion the crosshairs for the bombsight. When a woman was told that her hair was the perfect size for the project, she cut it all off and donated it to the army.
“There’s this human story that underlies so many of the big world events that makes it relevant and interesting,” said Catherine Shteynberg, assistant curator and new web and media coordinator for the museum.
The hodgepodge assortment of the items hiding behind closed doors is perfectly illustrated in a single filing cabinet of the museum. The top drawers are full of volumes of hand-drawn bird prints dating from the 1830s while the bottom drawer contains authentic samurai swords.
The swords, though they appear to be kept in a random location, are well-documented and researched, as are almost all of the pieces the museum keeps in its startling inventory.
“We think we have one now that goes back to the 14th or 15th century,” Robert Pennington, program coordinator of McClung Museum, said. “It was a family sword that was passed down, and during World War II the descendants actually had the sword mounted on a naval hilt.”
Another interesting group of pieces is the wardrobe of Ellen McClung Green, whose money was used to established the museum. The gowns date from the turn of the 20th century and hang hidden away in a back corner of the basement.
“We really don’t have the money to curate them properly,” Pennington lamented. “I’m actually trying to find new homes for them.”
Not only does the museum store commonplace historical items, but it also hosts some very rare artifacts. Shteynberg said their collection displays the only dinosaur bones ever found in Tennessee.
In addition to the fascinating general collection, the museum’s impressive archaeological collection and malacology lab – for the study of freshwater mussels – draw researchers from around the globe.The McClung Museum also provides an opportunity for students to get some hands-on experience in the field of natural history. The archaeological collection is often catalogued and documented by student volunteers.
“I found out about volunteering at the museum and decided to give it a try,” said Tracy Hicks, an undecided freshman who is interested in anthropology. “It’s a good way to build some relationships with professors and people that are in the anthropology department.”
Being a part of the behind-the-scenes work at the museum has affected the way student volunteers like Hicks view the museum.
“I’ve learned that the McClung Museum is very unique,” Hicks said. “Seeing that definitely made me realize that McClung is such a great asset to (UT). People should relish the fact that we have such a wonderful collection.”
Shteynberg, a fairly new addition to the McClung staff, said he hopes the museum is used for teaching, research, inspiration and even just “hanging out.” As the social media guru at McClung, she said a heightened web presence is something the museum looks forward to experimenting with in the future, one that might draw more students through the doors.
“I think many students aren’t aware that there’s a museum here,” Shteynberg said. “Come explore before your class in McClung. Some students like to simply come and relax or have some quiet or study time here.”
The McClung Museum welcomes student input on how the museum can be made more useful to the campus community. To leave comments and suggestions, e-mail Catherine Shteynberg at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet the institution at @mcclungmuseum.