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Opening the vault

The University of Montana owns the state's largest collection of fine art. Now, if it only had a place to showcase all that work.

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In 2009, when Brandon Reintjes was hired as curator of art at the Montana Museum of Art & Culture, he discovered a sealed Mason jar full of teeth. The fossilized ivories, cached among the museum's permanent collection of paintings, ceramics and Native American artifacts, appeared to be from some animal, but not a human. Save for a label that read, "Jar of teeth," nothing indicated where it came from, what it was exactly or why it was there.

"I let it sit and percolate for another year or so," Reintjes says. "And then I started to piece together the mystery."

First, Reintjes turned up other odd objects in the museum's collection with handwritten labels matching the one on the Mason jar. Many of those items were clearly labeled "Murnan Collection" and "South Seas." Among the objects was an Incan macehead and a set of basalt chisels, and a carved volcanic stone that didn't resemble anything Reintjes had seen in any other museum. One tag provided even more information: the name and address of a Mrs. Elliot Raboucher, from Kalispell, who appeared to have donated the collection to the museum in 1978. Reintjes' attempt to track down Raboucher led to a dead end, but he did confirm through a fossils specialist that the teeth were those of marine mammals from the early 1900s. As he began to dig through old newspapers he learned about an adventurous sailor named Captain William T. Murnan, to whom the artifacts once belonged.

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The story goes that at age 14, Murnan sneaked aboard a windjammer whaler headed into the wide-open of the Arctic Ocean. As in any good sea tale, the boy was adopted by the crew and invited back seasonally to help on deck between 1911 and 1917, during which time he likely collected the mixture of seal and whale teeth, two of which are pierced in the style of ornamental Inuit artifacts. In the 1950s, after working as a shipyard welder for the Coast Guard, Murnan built his own boat, The Seven Seas II, with which he spent five years circumnavigating the world. It's a good story, though there are still unanswered questions: Who was Mrs. Raboucher? How did Murnan's treasures end up in her hands? And, ultimately, how'd they land in UM's collection?

"That's one of the things about these pieces," Reintjes says. "You put in all this work to solve the mystery, but you don't ever really have a full resolution."

"The Jar of Fossilized Teeth, Arctic Ocean," as it's officially titled, is just one of many cultural curiosities at MMAC. Since its inception in 1895, the museum has built up an inventory of natural history artifacts, fine art from around the world, early Western art, antiques and textiles, experimental installation pieces and a variety of work from University of Montana students, some of whom have gone on to make a name in the art world. MMAC's 11,000 pieces make it the largest collection devoted to fine art in the state, and donations continue to come in every year.

PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • photo by Cathrine L. Walters

But as the collection has grown, the space for it has not. The museum's small Meloy and Paxson galleries are tucked away in the university's PARTV Center, and it's easy to miss them if you don't know they're there. What isn't on display from the permanent collection is carefully squirreled away in a handful of locations around campus.

The whole situation works out to be a tantalizing tease—a world-class collection at the university's fingertips, only to be mostly left in storage. The museum's director, Barbara Koostra, says she is in talks with university officials to finally find the entire collection a proper home. It's a conversation that started years ago, but may finally be making some real progress.

It may take negotiating with Main Hall, wooing major donors and identifying the appropriate real estate to eventually create the museum's new space, but in the meantime the staff is focused on a much simpler and noble effort: educating the community about what it has, and how vital those pieces are to both the university's students and the community at large. Or, put another way, they're letting the public know just how much it's been missing.




In order to tell the stories behind each piece in the museum's vast collection, Reintjes must first know what he has. That's easier said than done.

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  • photo courtesy of MMAC
  • For the last 120 years, the museum collection—including the mysterious “Jar of Fossilized Teeth, Arctic Ocean,” has been kept in storage spaces around the University of Montana campus.

On a table in one of the museum's storage areas lies a new acquisition from the Montana cowboy artist Irvin "Shorty" Shope. Western art legend Charlie Russell encouraged Shope to pursue art in the West, and the table of sketches and old frontier days posters reveal one of the last cowboy artists of that ilk. Reintjes has been working on documenting every item as it comes in, giving each one an accession number and carefully ascribing an artist name, donor name and background info on the piece so that everything will be easy to track. Once the Shope donation is documented, Reintjes will find another corner of the room to store it. Though each painting is carefully wrapped in foam and separated by cardboard, and the sculptures and artifacts have been tagged and arranged on the shelves, the space feels like it's about to burst.

In a metal filing cabinet, Reintjes keeps drawings that remain uncatalogued, like cold case files. He pulls a box off one of the shelves revealing a note that says "Chocolate drop stone was found in our yard on South Johnson in the fall in September 1951." Inside are several items including a broken stone pipe and hammer, and a piece of mining core cased in animal hide with the word "fetish" on it, most likely indicating a Native American totem or charm.

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