Closing time at McClung for Chapman

‘You may still find me around here,’ retiring director hints

Friday, June 14, 2019, Vol. 43, No. 24
By Nancy Henderson

Despite a near-lifelong fascination with ancient artifacts, some of which he unearthed himself in East Tennessee, the thought of leading one of the South’s premiere archaeologically-focused museums never crossed Jeff Chapman’s mind until it came time for the previous director of the McClung Museum to retire in 1990.

Nearly three decades later, it is Chapman’s turn to move on and let someone else take the reins. At the end of this month, after a celebratory send-off and fundraiser June 20, the optimistic, straight-shooting Chapman, 76, will bid farewell to his staff and the only museum on the University of Tennessee campus.

“When you consider that I’ve worked, literally, most of my life, I’m going to miss having that focus and getting up and going someplace to do something exciting,” he admits. “The thing about the museum is that we’re constantly planning ahead. We’re planning exhibits always two to three years out. We’re looking at various research proposals and activities. There’s just so much that goes on here in the museum that I’m going to miss.”

Chapman was 3 years old when his parents moved to Knoxville from Kinston, a small town in the coastal plains region of North Carolina. He and his dad enjoyed searching for arrowheads on the banks of the Tennessee River, so much so that they joined the Tennessee Archaeological Society, an amateur club headed by professors from UT’s anthropology department.

Jeff Chapman, outgoing director of the University of Tennessee’s McClung Museum, stands beside a stone archway in the museum’s Egyptian exhibt.

-- Photos By Adam Taylor Gash |The Ledger

“There was something exciting about excavating past cultures and the thrill of discovery,” Chapman says of his early attraction to the subject.

“I read a lot of books about the discoveries in Mexico and Central America with the Mayans, and the Old World – Egyptology and Mesopotamia and all. All those things were exciting to read [about], I guess the same way kids get really turned on by dinosaurs.”

As a junior in high school, Chapman participated in his first dig with a group that explored a section of the Cumberland River that was later flooded by the Barkley Dam in Kentucky. The next year, he joined a crew at Melton Hill Dam in East Tennessee.

The McClung Museum of Natural History and Culture has more than 3 million objects in its archeology research collections.

When his mentor, Dr. Michael Coe, left the university to take a position at Yale University, Chapman says, “Because of my acquaintance with him and my interest in majoring in anthropology when I went to college, I applied to Yale. And I think that probably Mike Coe was instrumental to a degree in [my acceptance] since he had worked with me here in Tennessee.”

In spite of his penchant for archaeology, Chapman figured he’d earn an MBA and follow in his jeweler dad’s footsteps or pursue another type of business. But after graduation in 1965, he accepted a job at the private Webb School of Knoxville, teaching American, ancient and medieval history. His favorite class, though, was introductory anthropology, which allowed him to take his middle-school students into the Tellico Reservoir – it was still under construction – to carry out excavations.

“It was very gratifying to be interacting with young people at that time,” Chapman says, adding, “I’m not sure I could do it now.”

Two recent acquisitions, “Sandy,” left, and his female companion, date to 1250-1350 A.D. They greet guests at the exhibit showcasing the archaeology and native peoples of Tennessee.

He still sees some of those students. A few became anthropologists. One is a surgeon; another is Chapman’s own eye doctor. “I know I didn’t influence everyone, but I know that I certainly did have an impact on a number of people, and that’s really a good feeling,” Chapman acknowledges.

He was later promoted to the chairmanship of the school’s social studies department, where he served until 1971.

Chapman loved teaching but knew that if he wanted to continue his archaeological work, he needed more education. So he enrolled at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and earned his masters and doctoral degrees in anthropology with a focus on Southeastern archaeology. (He also holds a master of teaching degree from Brown University.) During the summers, he oversaw field crews at the Tellico Reservoir as part of a federal mandate that archaeological studies be done there before planned flooding potentially destroyed important historical sites.

A collection of dinosaur eggs from China on permanent display

In 1975, UT employed him fulltime as a research assistant professor. When he wasn’t working out in the field, he was analyzing the material evidence of early life in the area that his crew had dug up the previous season and preparing reports for the National Park Service and the Tennessee Valley Authority.

“It was one of the largest archaeological projects at that time in the country,” Chapman recalls. “It was big.”

But speed bumps, particularly the addition of the snail darter fish to the Endangered Species list, delayed construction of the new Tellico Dam at the mouth of the Little Tennessee River. Finally, in 1979, the dam was exempted from the Endangered Species Act and its gates were closed. Chapman and his helpers continued their work in “above-pool” areas in the early 1980s.

Some of the objects his team removed from the site are now on display at McClung, in the permanent exhibit called Archaeology and the Native Peoples of Tennessee. Chapman wrote a book about the project – one of 20 he’s written over the course of his career – that is still used in public classrooms throughout East Tennessee.

When the Tellico project was completed in 1982, essentially ending his position, he stayed on as the museum’s part-time curator of archaeology. In 1990, the director left and Chapman took over.

One of the first things he did was to establish memberships to seek private funding to supplement the minimal support the museum received from the university. He also hired Debbie Woodiel to oversee K-12 programming as the facility’s first educator.

“Jeff was always supportive of me and the other staff,” says Woodiel, who retired a few years ago. “He shared his vision for the museum with us, giving us the freedom and the encouragement to develop new ideas and initiatives, and he secured the funding and other necessary resources that made the new programs, exhibitions and collections improvements we all made possible.”

Currently run by Leslie Jantz, the education department now makes a significant effort to reach underserved neighborhoods, including Knoxville’s Guatemalan population. A recent Mayan festival “really got a part of the community involved who had never set foot in the museum,” Chapman adds. “The folks who are descendants of the Mayans came. Now they are more comfortable coming here and taking advantage of the educational programming.

More than 650 million years of history live in the museum’s Geology and Fossil History of Tennessee display.

“Museums are about education,” he points out. “We preserve collections. We research those collections to generate new knowledge. And we educate about what it is that we have in our collections.”

Of his leadership style, Chapman notes, “I am not a micromanager. Yes, certainly, I’ve got oversight, also the power of the purse. But I think the key thing is hiring good people and then basically letting them do what you hired them to do.”

Early on, Chapman also opened the museum on weekends, with free admission, and secured a sponsor to pay for expenses. He also instituted a schedule of regularly changing exhibits in addition to the permanent displays and began to expand the collections. For every item the public sees, including preserved freshwater mussels and archaeological plant remains – about 25,000 art, cultural and research pieces in all – there are thousands more in storage. He is especially proud of the Tang Chinese ceramics dating back to roughly 699 A.D., a large and popular collection of bird prints, and not surprisingly, the archaeological gallery.

His favorite acquisitions, which happen to be among his most recent: A pair of siltstone statues, including a kneeling male figure known as “Sandy” dating to 1250 A.D. to 1350 A.D. that became well-known thanks to a traveling exhibit, placement on a U.S. postage stamp, and its 2014 designation as Tennessee’s state artifact. Chapman persuaded the reluctant private collector who owned the companion female carving – Sandy’s mate – to sell it to McClung, then raised funds for the purchase.

Retiring director Jeff Chapman shows off several arrowheads in the museum’s collection.

“Now when you come into the museum, in the entrance to the Native Peoples Gallery, the two male-female statues have been reunited and are just really dynamite,” Chapman says.

His powers of persuasion have also served him well in nonprofit work ranging from local annual United Way campaigns to leadership in state museum and archaeological associations. He is still in the throes of spearheading an extensive $1.5 million exhibit renovation at the Sequoyah Birthplace Museum in Vonore and has advised members of that facility since it opened in the 1980s.

Upon his retirement, Chapman says that “after a little breather to look at what opportunities are there,” he’ll probably do even more volunteering. He will also be helping the new museum director, whomever that may be, make the transition, along with traveling with his wife Vicki and “working in the yard as long as my body holds up.”

Still, leaving his post for good is a tad bittersweet.

“I’m going to miss the people,” Chapman says. “I love my employees and I enjoy thoroughly the opportunities I have to talk to visitors when they come in the museum.”

But, he teases, “You may still find me around here.”