The University of Mississippi museum offers a space to appreciate artifacts and works of art from times past and present.
Written by Leslie Criss | Photographed by Joe Worthem
Sitting back a bit from the well-traveled University Avenue in Oxford is a hidden treasure of sorts. Many in Oxford and beyond are aware of the awe-inspiring artifacts and art housed inside the red brick building at University Avenue and South 5th Street. And others have probably passed the place hundreds of times and never noticed. No matter, the magic and wonders encased or hanging — in temporary and permanent collections — are waiting to be seen at the University of Mississippi Museum.
The history of the museum is as interesting as its diverse displays. It’s been around quite a while, opening as Oxford Art Center on Aug. 24, 1939, thanks to the vision of the late artist Mary Skipwith Buie.
Buie and her sister, Kate Skipwith, became residents of Oxford when their family relocated from New Orleans after the Civil War. Buie married and moved to Chicago, where she continued to use her artistic talent to paint miniatures while working for Marshall Fields, and then she returned to Oxford in her senior years. She died in 1937.
In Buie’s will, she requested a museum be built in Oxford. To make certain her wish was fulfilled, Buie left $30,000, her own art collection and her property on which the museum was to be built. Her sister made sure Buie’s vision became a reality and deeded her own property to the City of Oxford for the museum.
Funding from the Works Project Administration and the city helped breathe life into Buie’s wish, which was called the Mary Buie Museum from 1942 until 1997. The City of Oxford operated the museum until 1974, when it was deeded to the university.
Through the years, the museum has made additions and renovations to make better use of space for educational endeavors and exhibits. There are two historic homes nearby operated by the museum. One, just across University Avenue from the museum, is the Walton-Young House, which housed the Center for the Study of Southern Culture and the Honors College for a time and became a part of the museum in 1997.
The other historic home is Rowan Oak, the home of William Faulkner. Those visiting the museum may take the 3/4-mile trail through Bailey Woods to Rowan Oak. The Bailey Woods Trail is Oxford’s only federally designated National Recreational Trail.
“Here in the easternmost building on campus, we have the best location we could ask for,” said Robert Saarnio, museum director for the past decade. “And since 2013, admission to the museum is free. There are no barriers that would keep anyone from enjoying and benefiting from this place.”
Saarnio’s deep appreciation for the works housed in the museum is apparent as he shows visitors around. But, clearly, he’s most proud of the work the museum does with young people of every age in art education and appreciation — from Buie Babies, a free stroller tour program for families with little ones up to age 2, to Mini Masters for toddlers and parents to work on fine motor skills. And the list goes on.
The Traveling Trunks program takes a taste of the museum into schools and libraries. There are summer camps, after-school art programs and a plethora of special art activities through the year.
“Our education program sees between 11,500 to 14,000 children a year,” Saarnio said. “We have two classrooms for kids in kindergarten through 12th grade.”
The museum staff is small and spread over the multiple buildings under the museum’s helm.
“The Ole Miss students are a blessing to us,” Saarnio said. “Undergraduates and graduate students have worked here and are an amazing help.”
Sydni Davis is one such museum staffer. The 20-year-old student from Tupelo is a junior African American studies major at Ole Miss. This is her second year to work at the museum.
“I absolutely love it,” Davis said. “It has been more fun than I even imagined.”
At the Museum
Mississippi folk artist Theora Hamblett, who died in 1977, gifted the museum with more than 400 pieces of her work. In the last 25 years of her life, much of her art was inspired by dreams and visions. These paintings and drawings are part of the museum’s collection.
Near the Theora Hamblett collection is the Millington-Barnard Collection which includes 19th century scientific instruments once used in Ole Miss classrooms. There’s an orrery, a mechanical model of the solar system, from 1854 and one of only a few surviving in the world. Also part of this collection are optical paintings by Joseph Silbermann.
A trio of collections contain a large number of Egyptian, Greek and Etruscan artifacts.
Upon his death, book publisher Seymour “Sam” Lawrence, who made Oxford a second home, left his collection of 20th century American art to the museum. The collection contains one of the most widely renowned pieces in the museum — a painting by Georgia O’Keefe. Lawrence also gifted the museum with funds to help build an additional gallery which was completed in 1998 and today hosts visiting exhibits.
A room will soon be readied for the museum’s collection of Southern folk art.
A temporary exhibit that has been on display since August is titled The Fall of 1962 and includes collected artifacts and stories of the Ole Miss riot. The exhibit will be up through July 8, 2023.
The University of Mississippi Museum
University Avenue & S. 5th Street, Oxford
Hours: 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. | Tuesday through Saturday
Admission/parking are free.
Several collections are available for viewing online at museum.olemiss.edu.