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By Henri Linton, Sr. and Siony Flowers

Today the University Museum and Cultural Center at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff stands as a beacon of light documenting the lives and struggles of the many individuals who labored to transform a small teacher’s college, founded in 1875 in an old dilapidated military barracks with seven students and limited resources, into a modern state university that continues to prepare students for an ever changing technological world. Prior to the creation of the Keepers of the Spirit Exhibit in 1993, very little had been done on an institutional level to archive and document the history of the institution and the people who served it through the years.

In 1970, Fredrick Chamber, a faculty member, wrote his doctoral dissertation, A Historical Study of Arkansas Agricultural, Mechanical and Normal College, 1873-1943. This study was followed in 1973 with another dissertation The Centennial History of Arkansas AM&N College, 1873-1973 by Alex Alexander, another AM&N faculty member pursuing her doctoral degree. Neither of these publications was widely disseminated, but like most dissertations, they were tucked away in the university’s library. Other doctoral studies have researched various academic programs and historical milestones in the growth of the college, but no concerted effort was put forth to collect and archive old records, letters, publications, photographs, artifacts and other ephemera documenting the history of the college that could be made available to the students, faculty, staff and the general public as primary resource materials for research and publication.

It was during the late 1980s that the idea of an exhibit documenting the history of the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff since its inception as Branch Normal College came to fruition. It was the brainchild of Henri Linton, then professor and chair of the Department of Art, and the late Dr. U. G. Dalton, a music professor. It was an outgrowth of the Persistence of the Spirit Exhibit, which documented the 300-year history of African Americans in Arkansas, which Linton and Dalton had been instrumental in bringing to campus as a permanent gift. Following the unexpected death of Dalton, Linton, who had viewed many images of the campus as yearbook advisor for 14 years, felt that the history of the college could best be told through a photographic exhibit because many of our students are visual learners. Because of limited exhibition spaces on campus, the Keepers of the Spirit Exhibit was created as a temporary exhibit to be displayed in the gallery of the Hathaway-Howard Fine Arts Center along with the Persistence of the Spirit Exhibit. The exhibit was funded by private donors and the support of the Chancellor’s Benefit for the Arts, which had been organized for this purpose.

However, it was not until 2004, almost thirteen years later that Linton with the support of Title III funding was able to create a museum as a permanent site for the Keepers of the Spirit Exhibit and the university’s archives. Chancellor Emeritus Lawrence A. Davis, Jr.’s support was instrumental in creating a space for the museum in Childress Hall, formerly the John Brown Watson Memorial Library and later the student services center. The University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff’s former master plan, which was developed more than ten years ago, had cited the building for demolition.

The University Museum and Cultural Center, opened in the Spring of 2004, serves to collect, preserve, and celebrate the rich history of the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff and the Arkansas Delta. At first the museum’s artifacts and collections were small. Eventually, the museum’s collections grew because Henri Linton searched for artifacts and historical documents to add to the museum’s collection of objects about Pine Bluff and other communities across Arkansas. Because of Henri Linton’s extensive knowledge of history and acquisitions and his connections to the community, many people have donated items to the museum. As a result of these acquisitions, the museum’s holdings have grown from 5,000 to 50,000 items since it’s opening. The museum currently collects and preserves photographs, catalogs, yearbooks, letters, artifacts, portraits and other ephemera that document the lives of the people who helped to shape the history of the university and the Arkansas Delta.

The University Museum and Cultural Center has developed a reputation of being one of the few Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) with a college museum in the United States. The museum is only one of four college museums in the state of Arkansas. This fiscal year, an average of 633 students, alumni, faculty, staff and members of the general public per month visited the museum to view the various exhibits and to conduct historical research using sources from the museum’s archives. Visitors enjoy the museum because it offers a unique learning experience because of the well-designed exhibits that incorporate artifacts, photographs, and historical documents that most people are not exposed to.

Students, faculty, staff and researchers come to the museum to conduct historical research because of the wealth of information about the university and the Arkansas Delta that can be found in its archival collections. Students from various courses use the exhibits in the museum to complete class projects. Basic Academic Service courses visit the museum to complete a study guide sheet pertaining to the history of the university and other pertinent information found in the museum. Students from the Oral Communications courses are required to tour the museum for information to complete their informative speech projects. Students from the African American History courses also visited the museum to complete their class projects. The museum staff has provided the UAPB Magazine with material for issues of its publications. Researchers have used the materials in the museum’s archives to produce publications. Gladys Finney-Turner used a good number of resources from the archives to complete her book about Joseph Carter Corbin. Evin Demerel used information that he found in the museum archives to create his book African American Athletes in Arkansas. The museum staff also assisted Loretta J. Hendrix, an AM&N College alumnus and historian, in locating the Arkansas Teachers Association Records for a research project in conjunction with the National Park Service.

Also, the exhibits make history exciting, alive, entertaining and personal. Students understand how much their university evolved from a teacher’s college to a state university through narratives, diplomas, and photographs of administrators, teachers, students, and campus buildings in the exhibits. Visitors are often fascinated by the types of items women used in the early 20th century to wash their clothes, clean their houses, and cook meals for their families. In the Welcome Home Things Aren’t What They Used To Be Exhibit, visitors have an opportunity to see how labor-intensive chores were for women just by viewing the everyday items they used like washboards, steel tubs, Gold Dust washing powder, dolly pegs and primitive washing machines. Older generations of visitors reminisce about these artifacts because their mothers and grandmothers used them everyday. Visitors often return with friends and family because the museum is warm, inviting, fascinating, and connects with them on a personal level. They leave the museum knowing more about the university and the Arkansas Delta than when they walked through the doors.

Furthermore, the museum exposes the students and the UAPB community to one aspect of the field of public history – museum studies. Visitors can actually see public history in action at the museum. Title III funding has allowed the director of the museum to hire a professional archivist for the first time. Visitors can see these minority professionals working in various areas such as museum administration, exhibit research, design and fabrication, and preserving and organizing historical documents. Because minority professionals work in all aspects of the museum, the history of UAPB and the Arkansas Delta is presented in a manner that reflects the people of the area. Students, alumni, families and the general public often return to the museum because they see themselves and their history represented through artifacts, photographs, and historical documents. When museums exclude the history of a group of people, some of their visitors often do not return.

Finally, Title III funding has allowed the museum to become a showpiece for the university because of its informative and appealing exhibits and the beautiful architecture of Childress Hall. UAPB TV video records its interviews with guest speakers such as Fredricka Whitfield of CNN on the mezzanine level with the mural of important UAPB figures in the background. The museum is also used for important campus functions. In March 2017, the museum hosted the University of Arkansas Board of Trustees dinner in Childress Hall, which allowed the University of Arkansas President and Board of Trustees, Chancellor Dr. Laurence B. Alexander and the UAPB administration the opportunity to view the updated Keepers of the Spirit Exhibit and to learn about the history of the university and the importance of the museum.