KU’s Oldest Museum Anticipates Cutting-Edge Renovations

Courtesy of the University of Kansas

LAWRENCE — Phil Stinson points to a miniature marble head of a Dacian chieftain.

“The Romans would have thought of this as the image of a so-called ‘barbarian,’ a member of a Germanic tribe at war with the Romans,” said Stinson, associate professor in classics at the University of Kansas.

“It’s my favorite object here because it’s a small piece of something much larger and much more elaborate. And it’s fun to think about what it comes from.”

For Stinson, an appreciation for a small piece of something much larger also applies to the Wilcox Classical Museum, where the artifact resides. Stinson is enjoying his third year as curator of the Wilcox collection, housed on the first floor of Lippincott Hall. For a university that boasts numerous high-profile museums (such as the Spencer Museum of Art and the Natural History Museum), relatively few people know about the existence of this fascinating archive — even though it’s the oldest one on campus.

An endeavor to raise the museum’s visibility is being spearheaded by Stinson. He’s eyeing major renovations, technology-based improvements and a partnership with the KU School of Architecture & Design as a means to improve this compelling, underappreciated site.

The enterprise, which is still dependent on funding, has already completed a key technical improvement.

“For years, the heating and air conditioning in here were malfunctioning, so the temperature in this room was frequently over 90 degrees at this time of year. And it was simply becoming impossible to teach or do anything inside the museum for any amount of time. But last fall, with the generous assistance of Facilities, we made a lot of adjustments,” said Stinson, who’s in charge of maintaining the permanent collection.

In addition to the tolerable climate, the museum showcases hundreds of artifacts mainly from ancient Italy and Greece that were collected, gifted and donated over a period of 130 years and counting.

The most striking images that greet visitors are the towering plaster casts of Roman and Greek sculptures, highlighted by the Venus de Milo, Apollo Belvedere and the Discus Thrower. This includes casts of more than 25 sculpted panels from the famous Parthenon Frieze in Athens. From 1888 to 1965, this whole collection was housed on the second floor of “Old” Fraser Hall.

“It’s represented in our early media coverage as the first museum at KU,” Stinson said. “Several departments had their own study collections, and the Wilcox at that time was known as the Classical Museum. Once near the cultural heart of the campus, it predates the museums that we know much better today.”

The plaster casts in particular were among the most coveted items the site had to offer. According to Stinson, there was an interest in collecting Greek and Roman originals but only so many to go around. Most American universities didn’t have the funds to buy an original Venus or Apollo. For a comparatively low cost, a museum could purchase a whole set of them from a Boston-based company.

“For students, who might not be able to travel to European museums and see the originals, the casts were a great option,” he said.

However, when Old Fraser was demolished in 1965, there was a sea change in what was once considered historically valuable.

“The collecting of plaster casts was no longer thought to be fashionable,” he said. “Museums like this became more interested in original works of sculpture.”

Without a permanent home, the artifacts were put into storage. They remained there until the late 1980s when they were “revived and reconstituted” in Lippincott.

“In the past, maybe only students of classics, art history or studio arts would come here. One of our main goals in reimagining the museum is to broaden the audience,” Stinson said.

He hopes to work with the Office of First-Year Experience and the University Honors Program to offer seminar teaching space to other groups. Also proposed is an engagement space that could be used as a commons area.

The projected plan is to partner with the architecture students of Dirt Works Studio, led by Chad Kraus, associate professor of architecture, potentially in collaboration with a design-build studio in the new interior architecture & design program.

“(We) would spend a spring semester designing the renovation of the entire space and would build a full-scale partial prototype of the design to test ideas and assist in additional fundraising to support the full renovation,” Kraus said.

During the past three years, Kraus’ students have completed three such campus projects: the Chalmers Café (2017), the Marvin Makerstudio (2018) and the Nunemaker classrooms (2019), amounting to approximately $370,000 in project funding.

Kraus and Stinson, who is also originally trained as an architect, envision many specific cosmetic and technical improvements.

They want to explore the possibility of uncovering the gallery space’s original historic windows on three walls, which are now boxed in to prevent natural light leakage. They also expect to incorporate augmented reality technology (AR) so visitors can employ devices, tablets or phones to see what the pieces once looked like in their original display contexts.

Additionally, digital technology could be used to transform the plaster casts of sculptural works, in particular, the Parthenon Frieze.

“The general public has the impression walking into this museum or any other where sculptures are on display that these pieces were originally white,” Stinson said. “Now we know through scientific analysis that they were brightly painted. We want to fundamentally change the way the public interprets the plaster casts by projecting reconstructions of their original polychromy right on to them.”

Currently, the Wilcox draws about 100 visitors per week. Stinson believes such renovations could triple that amount.

All this, of course, requires money. Stinson plans to submit grant applications in the fall.

“We have a lot of momentum. And we think we have a good chance of securing public funding and maybe some private funding,” he said, predicting it would take a year of planning activities before implementing actual renovations.

While he doesn’t yet have a precise dollar amount needed, he says the sum would be “modest” in comparison to the high costs of other recent campus projects. After all, he emphasizes, the museum already has the two most important components: the location and the collection.

“There’s a story this museum can tell to the public that has not been told,” Stinson said. “This is going to be a major draw if we can pull it off. The Wilcox Collection was and still is an incredible resource with untapped potential.”