February 2023, William U. Eiland

February Member of the Month: William U. Eiland, Director of the Georgia Museum of Art at the University of Georgia

William U. Eiland is the Director of the Georgia Museum of Art at the University of Georgia and currently preparing to retire after a long career in the academic museum field. Thank you for sharing your time and talents with us!

What’s one thing – either industry/work-related or not – you learned in the past month?

As I prepare to retire, I am learning that leaving a museum—especially this one that I love—is hard work. What I will miss the most is engagement with our core audience of students, faculty and staff as well as the general public, but equally and as important, research and development of ideas that lead to new interpretations of works of art and their links to our shared culture. So, today, in ignoring all I need to get done before I leave, I have learned the magic phrase “Let’s leave that decision to the next director.”

If you could trade places with anyone for a day, who would it be?

For just twelve hours of warm daylight, I would like to trade places with the younger me of thirty-three years ago, so that I could rectify some problems that arose later—professional ones and personal ones. For that twelve hours, I would not leave my beloved Andrew’s side and beg him to delight and intrigue me with tales of medieval Greece and Italy.

Coffee or Tea?

Tea (à la française) with honey and lemon, and the ability to read the tea leaves.

Book/Author suggestion?

Edith Wharton, Hudson River Bracketed; in fact, anything by Edith Wharton.

What did you want to be when you were growing up?

When I was  in grammar school, the first French expression/word I learned was idiot-savant. I decided then and there that I wanted to be one, a sort of Forrest Gump who did not go to Vietnam. As it turns out, I am only one half, the first half, of the phrase, but every time I watch Jeopardy, I still wish I  could be the latter as well.

What did you enjoy most about being a part of an academic museum?

I think that those among our docents, patrons, board members, collectors and supporters who found and expressed their joy in art, who sought knowledge through the visual, and who demonstrated their passion and devotion to our mission gave me encouragement and impetus to progress ever forward. They, as well as hundreds of artists, were my goads, my provocateurs, those who sparked ideas, who fueled my efforts as well as those of an overworked and badly paid but exceptionally sane and resilient staff.

What are your hopes for our industry?

The museum of the future will no longer, ostrich-like, hide its head in the sand. Whether natural history, art, science or of whatever ilk, it must confront social ills, to be sure, but in pursuing that goal, must strive to find balance in navigating the challenges of a constantly changing world. Premier among those demands on museums is the moral necessity to raise voices loudly and vehemently in demanding justice, in protecting our planet, in delivering truth to each person we serve. I could go on, but what is needed is action.

As you prepare for retirement, what are the most significant changes you’ve seen in your tenure across the field of academic museums?

Among the changes I have noted in our profession has been the curious realization that our emphasis of the 1990s on community would strengthen when we most needed to draw together even if physically apart, to proclaim our devotion to the pursuit of knowledge, to bring our communities into one quest to inquire into the nature of things, and to fear not change in the definition of who we are and what we want to become. We must ask our governing bodies to reflect our roles as keepers of knowledge and not leave behind our fellow humans. And, academic museums should be academic units and not classified as ancillary or auxiliary. We are essential to the educational mission of those colleges and universities lucky and prescient enough to have them.

Bonus: Do you have a favorite joke to share?

From my Alabama childhood:

A crabby, unpleasant man visited his doctor. The doctor said he needed an operation, to which he replied, “I want a second opinion.” The doctor said, “O.K., you’re ugly.”