University of Mississippi Museum earns Top 20 honors

Adam Robison | Daily Journal Robert Saarnio, director of University of Mississippi Museum and Historic Houses, said he hopes to attract visitors from north Mississippi. "We want people to feel like this is their museum," he said.

Adam Robison | Daily Journal
Robert Saarnio, director of University of Mississippi Museum and Historic Houses, said he hopes to attract visitors from north Mississippi. “We want people to feel like this is their museum,” he said.

By M. Scott Morris

Daily Journal

OXFORD – National recognition recently shone on the University of Mississippi Museum, but its director is more interested in regional attention.

The museum was named No. 17 in a Top 20 list of college museums in the nation compiled by Complex Art & Design website. Ole Miss’s elite company includes Harvard, Princeton and Yale.

Here’s the website’s take:

“At the museum of Ole Miss, you can view Southern folk art next to 19th century scientific instruments, or Greek and Roman antiquities next to artifacts from the Civil War. They balance their dedication to the local community with a commitment to expanding students’ world views. Whether you come to see a football game or William Faulkner’s house, the cultural campus of Ole Miss is a place like no other.”

That mixture of attributes helped attract Robert Saarnio, who one year ago took over the job of director of University Museum and Historic Houses.

He invited people in north Mississippi to visit and see for themselves what impressed Complex Art & Design.

“We have an awesome museum that is north Mississippi’s museum,” Saarnio said. “That’s how we want people to think about it.”

Oxford’s own

The museum includes two historic houses, Faulkner’s Rowan Oak and the Walton Young House.

The Young House is next door to the museum on University Avenue. It’s closed for repairs.

Bailey’s Woods Trail leads from behind University Museum to Rowan Oak. It’s a 20-minute walk to see Faulkner’s home, which features furnishings and a typewriter that belonged to the author.

“Rowan Oak is operated and managed by us,” Saarnio said. “The University owns the house and the family lets us use the furnishings.”

There’s also plenty to see without leaving the museum, which hosts both permanent and temporary exhibits.

Another category should be added: semi-permanent exhibits. That applies to the paintings, glasswork and other creations by Theora Hamblett.

“She’s beloved in Oxford, but she’s known nationally,” Saarnio said. “She’s also in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.”

The Oxford resident wasn’t an artist until she had a special dream, said Alyssa Yuen, membership, events and communications coordinator for the museum.

“She started at 55 after she had a dream of God telling her she would make beautiful paintings,” Yuen said. “She pretty much taught herself.”

She’s probably best known for her brightly colored trees, which have made an impact on viewers over the years.

“People get upset with us when we take her down or move her,” Yuen said.

The current exhibit will be up through the spring semester.

The old stuff

The David M. Robinson Memorial Collection of Greek and Roman antiquities features more than 2,000 objects collected by Robinson, a former Ole Miss professor.

“Scholars around the country know about it,” Saarnio said. “They can access it on the web and study it.”

Some 65 pieces, including vases, small statues and objects of daily life from pre-Christian days, are on display.

The original portion of the museum is undergoing a renovation that should take a year to 16 months. Upon completion, it will house 200 or 300 pieces of the Robinson collection.

“Basically, we can quadruple the number of items on view,” Saarnio said. “We’re still fundraising for the project. We’re actively conversing with the Greek-American community in Memphis and New Orleans.”

Modern collection

A few feet away from the distant past is the museum’s collection of contemporary art. It was assembled by Seymour Lawrence, a book publisher who worked with Barry Hannah and Kurt Vonnegut.

Both writers are connected to the exhibit. Vonnegut wrote a note and drew a caricature of himself that hangs near an etching of Dresden, the German city depicted in Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse Five.”

Oxford artist Glennray Tutor is in the Lawrence collection. He painted covers for Hannah’s books, including “Bats Out of Hell.”

After Hannah invited Lawrence to visit him in Oxford, the publisher fell in love with the town and bought a house near Rowan Oak.

Lawrence’s house was later owned by author John Grisham, and it’s used for the Ole Miss’ writer-in-residence program.

“The Lawrence collection came in 1998,” Saarnio said. “The museum went from having no modern paintings to a significant collection.”

The donation features work by Marsden Hartley, Arthur Dove, Leonard Baskin, Edward Hopper and Man Ray.

“Man Ray spent half of his life in Los Angeles and half of his life in Paris,” Yuen said, “and we have pieces from both periods.”

The museum’s Georgia O’Keeffe painting has its own specially built traveling case because it spends so much time on the road. It’s on loan in New York at the moment, and visits are scheduled for Sante Fe, N.M., and Southern California.

Art of science

Turning another corner reveals the Millington-Barnard Collection of Scientific Instruments.

The centerpiece is an orrery or a Barlow’s planetarium, which has the sun, the first three planets in the solar system and Earth’s moon. The planetarium depicts the position of heavenly bodies on Oct. 15, 1848.

“That’s the first day of school at the university,” Yuen said. “There are only four in the U.S. and this is the only one on display.”

Another room houses “Recollecting: 1980-2012,” a temporary exhibit of works by Oxford native Ron Dale that will be on display until Jan. 11.

“He’s a former Ole Miss instructor and a nationally significant ceramic artist,” Saarnio said.

Come and see

That’s a sampling of what the museum has to offer. An actual trip would unveil other hidden gems that surely played their part in making Complex Art & Design take notice.

Saarnio thinks anyone else who visits will be impressed, as well.

“Between Jackson and Memphis, this is the largest museum in north Mississippi,” he said. “We want people to feel like this is a place that’s easy to get to and that it’s not just an Oxford museum. We want people to feel like this is their museum.”

scott.morris@journalinc.com