University Museum director Eric Barnett retires after nearly 20 years

Eric Barnett, who has served as the University Museum’s director for nearly 20 years, is set to retire at the end of this month.

Throughout his time at the museum, Barnett said he has most enjoyed “playing with the toys.”

Eric Barnett, director of the University Museum, examines some of the new collection donated by the SMART Museum in Chicago in 2011.

“[It] has been a series of discoveries with objects and research [and has] been one ‘Aha!’ moment after another,” Barnett said.

And those moments have turned into 100,000 pages of research, according to Barnett.

“I don’t think most people at the university realize how much research [has been] done over the years,” Barnett said.

His biggest accomplishment as museum director was cataloguing and researching objects, which caused him to learn about Native American, Pre-Colombian and African art.

“So much came to us with incorrect documentation,” Barnett said.

University Museum graduate assistant Carrie Smith, who has worked with Barnett for eight years, said Barnett’s contributions to the museum are beyond explanation – From his advocacy to his dedication, Smith said everything Barnett has done has been significant. Though working with Barnett has taught Smith to view the museum’s collection “as an accumulation of disciplines,” her fondest memories of him come from planning exhibitions.

“The thought process and work that goes into one of these shows illustrates the passion Eric has for the objects,” Smith said. “I learned a great deal from Eric about how to convey the message of the objects to the public through exhibition design and flow.”

Rick Tough, also a University Museum graduate assistant, said Barnett’s most significant contribution is that Barnett has fulfilled “the idea that SIUE has a museum without walls.”

“He has worked with very limited resources, especially in regards to a permanent, museum-ran gallery on campus, to display art throughout the Edwardsville community,” Tough said.

University Museum graduate assistant Noelle Norris said working with Barnett has “enriched” her time at SIUE because of how much she has learned from him throughout the past seven years.

“In his years here, Eric has amassed an almost encyclopedia knowledge of the collection in his head and is able to recall facts about must of the objects is in the collection,” Norris said. “Some of my favorite memories are the hours I have spent with him in the collection listening to what he knows about the objects and the donors.”

Through working in the museum, Barnett said he has gotten to know “very interesting people” from the community. Those people, according to Barnett, have “such depth of knowledge” that is not recognized because they are not affiliated with a university.

“There’s something very special about collectors that actively pursue knowledge as amateurs…,” Barnett said. “They do it because they love it. People who are really committed to learning are fascinating people.”

In Barnett’s time as director, the museum has more than quadrupled the number of pieces it owns and more than doubled the number of objects displayed throughout campus, according to Barnett. While the museum’s collection has expanded, Barnett said storage space has decreased. At one point, the museum had roughly 20,000 square feet of storage space compared to its current 12,600 square foot building, located off of Supporting Services Road. Its pieces are displayed at various locations on campus, as well as through exhibits at the Edwardsville Arts Center.

Barnett’s hope for the future of the museum is that it has a building with exhibitor space and classrooms because that is something “that’s good for museums.”

“Most people look at museums as public exhibits and programs [and that’s] generally the least of what museums do,” Barnett said. “… In order to survive, the museum needs to have those public programs.”

Though he is retiring, Barnett said is “not disappearing,” as he will volunteer and give class lectures.

Barnett initially came to the museum in 1982 as a graduate assistant. Prior to becoming the director, Barnett served as collections manager and registrar for the museum.

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