June 2023, McClung Museum of Natural History & Culture

The McClung Museum at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville brings together natural history, cultural, and art collections to create a space for convergence, discovery, and collaboration. Our mission is to share stories and facilitate the exchange of ideas to awaken curiosity in service of the university and communities connected to Tennessee. Visit their site here!

Ingles Open Road visited the museum for a recent episode of their show, check out the video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zFNODZEfFVk

As an academic museum, what do you enjoy most about being part of your university/college institution?

The best part of working at a university museum is having access to the expertise and curiosity of our students, faculty, and staff. Whether it’s organizing programs with partners from across campus or opening a new Community Gallery with our Student Advisory Board, our collaborations with our university community always make our work stronger and more interesting!

Most recently, we featured a film from PBS’s POV series called Homegoings, that did a deep dive into African American funeral practices. After the film, we collaborated with the UT Departments of History and Africana Studies to have a talk-back session. Peer educators from Multicultural Student Life were also onsite for the discussion and our Student Advisory Board had pre-screening activities.  It was a powerful, cross-campus program.

What’s one thing — either industry/work-related or not — that your institution’s team learned in the past month?

We have been working to learn more about the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) as a team. Recently, we hosted a virtual panel called “Healing and Justice through Repatriation” which featured three professionals who work on NAGPRA on behalf of their individual Native Nations. The panel provided a powerful opportunity for both museum staff and the public to gain a deeper understanding of Repatriation from a Native perspective. The conversation was enlightening for all of us and emphasized the significant and emotional impact of this work. 

You’re catering a lunch for the museum team, what is your team’s favorite food?

We have some amazing cooking talents at the McClung! Specifically, our Manager of Exhibitions and Physical Experiences, Chris Weddig, is a fantastic baker and makes incredible scones. Those would have to be on any menu.

Tell us about one of the museum’s recent exhibitions that has opened in the past year?

In the past year, the museum opened an exhibition called The Repatriation of Archaeology and the Native Peoples of Tennessee. In December 2022, during a Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation (NAGPRA) Consultation, Native Nations requested that the museum to remove funerary items from view in this over 20-year-old exhibition.

Within three months, we removed over 300 items from view. We had a choice to either close that dated gallery, or to be transparent about the changes and explain the NAGPRA and Repatriation process to our visitors. We worked closely with several Native Nation Tribal Historic Preservation Offices and University of Tennessee’s Office of Repatriation to create text explaining NAGPRA and why it is an important sovereignty and Civil Rights issue. While the gallery now offers new information and a powerful discussion of Repatriation, we recognize that it is not a perfect solution: there is still a tremendous amount of work to be done with NAGPRA at the museum. However, this has been an important step in increasing transparency, building relationships, and thinking about next steps.

In 2025, we look forward to opening a new exhibition, A Sense of Indigenous Place: Native American Voices and the Mound at University of Tennessee, in the same space that is co-curated by four Native Nations (Cherokee Nation; Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana; Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians; and Muscogee Nation). The exhibition will feature contemporary art about mounds and Indigenous placemaking from 16 Native artists.

What is your favorite way to connect with your audience?

We have a dynamic intern program that takes place every spring. Since 2018 we’ve had students from 11 different academic units across campus—all of whom have been passionate about different aspects of the museum field. It is always a joy to mentor these hardworking, driven, emerging professionals from such a wide variety of subject areas. They are an invaluable part of our team, and the program is a true source of pride for our staff, especially now that we can see them taking off in museum careers of their own.

What books or podcasts does your team recommend?

What are your team’s hopes for academic museums in the future?

We hope that academic museums continue to serve as a bridge between higher learning and the communities around us, as we are uniquely poised to do. We will center Repatriation and Indigenous relationship-building in our work

Bonus: What’s your favorite museum joke? Or a fun fact about your museum?

Our museum has one of the most important collections of freshwater mussels and snails in the country. In honor of our Curator of Malacology, we chose his favorite jokes. Malacology is the study of mollusks.

Why did the malacologist sign up for the weightlifting contest?

Because he had all the mussels!

How does a mollusk hide from predators?