In the nearly 30 years he has served as director, Jeff Chapman has led UT’s McClung Museum of Natural History and Culture through three accreditation’s by the American Alliance of Museums, a Smithsonian affiliation, and a remarkable growth period that has seen the museum welcome thousands of students for classes and more than a million visitors from around the country.
Now the archaeologist and educator is preparing for a new phase of life: retirement.
“It’s been a wonderful trip,” Chapman says. “Museums are exciting places. Every day something different is happening. It’s been extremely gratifying to see what we have achieved.”
In the 1960s, Chapman began his career as a social studies teacher at Webb School of Knoxville. After completing his PhD at the University of North Carolina in 1975, he returned to Knoxville to oversee the Tellico Archaeological Project. When the project’s materials were transferred to the McClung Museum in 1982, Chapman joined the staff as curator of archaeology.
After nearly eight years as a curator, Chapman succeeded Paul Parmalee as the museum’s fourth director. Now Chapman passes the reins to Claudio Gómez, formerly director of the National Museum of Natural History of Chile, who will take the title of Jefferson Chapman Executive Director.
As he prepares to depart his post, Chapman reflects on the ways the museum has contributed to education on campus and in the community.
“I cherish our role in education,” Chapman says. “When I began, there was no organized education program. Now it is one of the major functions of the museum. We are engaged in research, install exhibits, but everything we do is focused in education.”
Chapman created the first K–12 and university academic programs offered by the McClung Museum. Since the programs began, approximately 8,000 area schoolchildren and 5,000 university students a year have been involved in object-based learning.
The role of the museum on campus, he says, is to be “a portal for people to enter the university.” Experiencing museum exhibits draws the public into the research work occurring on campus.
“We do research in Southeastern archaeology, freshwater mussels (malacology), and paleoethnobotany (plant remains) that have really added to UT’s research base,” he says. “It affords the public an opportunity to see what is happening on campus.”
The museum plays an important role in connecting the public with community organizations as well as other cultures. Through cultural festivals, family programming, and presentations by university researchers, museum-goers can experience a world outside their own.
“When we had Tibetan monks here, they spent a week doing a sand painting and several thousand people visited,” Chapman recalls. “The Mayan Festival also was really exciting—Knoxville’s Mayan community, thanks to our educator Leslie Chang Jantz, felt welcomed at UT and the museum.”
As part of his commitment as an educator and anthropologist, Chapman has consistently sought to bring unique items to museum’s collections.
Among his favorite items are a selection of Chinese Tang dynasty ceramics—“one of the best collections in the Southeast in a university museum”—a donation that Chapman negotiated. Then of course there is Monty the dinosaur, the bronze cast of an Edmontosaurus annectens that stands in front of the museum, which came out of a study of how the museum could better anchor itself better on Circle Park.
But closest to Chapman’s heart is a pair of sandstone statues.
“Within the last five years, we were able to acquire the mate to our famous prehistoric sandstone statue, a Tennessee state artifact of a kneeling male figure that dates to about 1250 AD,” he says. “The female, which was obviously made by the same sculptor, was in private ownership. So we negotiated with that individual and raised a substantial amount of money to acquire the piece. These are stellar pieces for the museum.”
Even in retirement, Chapman plans to stay connected to what is happening in Circle Park. He’s eager to support the new director and watch as the museum continues to expand its footprint on campus and throughout the region.
“At the McClung Museum, there is always something new to learn.”
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