The McClung Museum of Natural History and Culture was built with money bequeathed to the University of Tennessee by Judge John and Ellen McClung Green of Knoxville as a memorial to Mrs. Green’s father, Frank H. McClung—a Knoxville merchant and descendant of James White, founder of Knoxville.
The museum was officially dedicated on June 1, 1963, but its history actually extends to an earlier date. On March 1, 2013, the University of Tennessee Board of Trustees elected to change the official name of the museum to the Frank H. McClung Museum of Natural History and Culture. The new name helps to more clearly define the types of collections found in the museum, while still paying tribute to the McClung family legacy.
The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) was created in 1933 to provide power and resource management to the Tennessee Valley, a region particularly affected by the Great Depression. However, with the creation of TVA hydroelectric sites, agency and public concern for the archaeological resources to be inundated by the TVA reservoirs was immediate. In December of 1933, representatives of the TVA, the University of Tennessee, the University of Alabama, and the US National Museum met to formulate plans for archaeological investigations. University of Tennessee archaeologist Thomas M.N. Lewis was appointed supervisor of the Tennessee excavations, and between 1934 and 1942, University of Tennessee archaeologists utilizing Civil Works Administration (CWA) and Works Progress Administration (WPA) labor excavated 62 sites across the state.
As early as 1937, Lewis was already promoting a museum: “Since all of the archaeological materials assembled at the university during the past four years have been recovered under thoroughly scientific conditions, the collection may be regarded as rather unique from the educational aspect. When a museum building is made available for the display of this material it will be possible to present an enlightening picture of the manner of living practiced by the prehistoric Indian groups of early Tennessee.”
The addition of archaeologist Madeline Kneberg to the staff in 1938 created a team that founded modern archaeology in Tennessee and the Department of Anthropology at UT. The massive archaeological collections and the continued bequests and gifts of collections to the university prompted Lewis and Kneberg to continue efforts for a museum.
Finally in 1955, a bequest from Judge John and Mrs. Ellen McClung Green provided funds to build a museum that would be named for her father, Frank H. McClung. Land was acquired on Circle Park and Lewis and Kneberg were named director and assistant curator. With the completion of the museum building in 1961, Lewis and Kneberg retired, and the University Board of Trustees resolved that the existing archaeological and anthropological collections be designated as the “Lewis-Kneberg Collection.” Alfred K. Guthe was named museum director and head of the Department of Anthropology. Exhibits were installed and, on June 1, 1963, the museum was formally dedicated.
In 1971, the Department of Anthropology separated and moved to South Stadium Hall and the museum became a separate unit in the College of Liberal Arts. The next year, the museum was accredited by the American Association of Museums, and has been reaccredited four times since. In 1990, the museum added a full-time educator, and since then, thousands of school children have received docent-led instruction. Today, the museum is a unit in the Department of Academic Affairs, reporting directly to the chancellor of the university.
The freestanding museum is a three-story, brick, 38,000-square-foot facility. Roughly 9,000 square feet are dedicated to exhibits and 9,000 square feet to collections storage and research. Today, the 267-seat auditorium continues to be used for UT classes and museum programs.
Since its opening, the museum has hosted hundreds of temporary and small exhibitions in addition to its permanent galleries. More than 1.4 million visitors have enjoyed programs and exhibits, and thousands of UT undergraduates have attended classes there. Its nationally significant archaeological, paleoethnobotanical, and malacological collections have been the sources of myriad theses, dissertations, journal articles, and monographs.