Artfully Giving: Longtime Curator Leaves a Legacy of Commitment to UT
by Chandra Harris-McCray *
(* adapted from an article by Chandra Harris-McCray, Tennessee Legacies, Spring/Summer 2013)
Known around campus simply as “the lady in the Karmann Ghia,” the late Elaine Altman Evans was just as eccentric and rare as the 1971 Volkswagen black sports coupe she drove.
Described as “an original,” Evans didn’t just work for the last 41 years as a curator at UT’s McClung Museum of Natural History & Culture; it was her life’s calling. Her home away from home, Evans saw to it that a great part of her estate was earmarked for the University. She left significant gifts to the UT Libraries, the College of Arts and Sciences, McClung Museum, and to Museum director Jeff Chapman. Chapman selflessly invested Evans’ bequest into a UT endowment named in her memory, noting “I couldn’t imagine doing anything else but giving the money back to the programs to which she dedicated her life.” Evans’ bequest to the Libraries is being used to purchase unique materials on travels in Egypt that enhance the Libraries’ special collections on world travels.
Surrounded by Post-it notes—her official organizational system—inscribed with names, references, and observations, Evans’ meticulous research gave birth to a McClung exhibit focused on the burial practices of ancient Egypt followed by a permanent prominent gallery, now named in her honor, devoted to ancient Egypt. She also curated 20 temporary exhibits and more than 100 smaller case exhibits along with designing and describing more than 150 objects from around the world in the museum’s decorative arts showcase.
“Elaine was a storehouse of vast knowledge,” says Chapman. “She was never happy with an identification of a piece in an eclectic collection until she exhausted the available literature and sought the input of published experts. It wasn’t just what she did; it was part of who she was.”
An author and artist, Evans’s passion for the ancient culture of Egypt was piqued prior to her arrival at UT at the Metropolitan Museum of Art where she worked in the Department of Egyptian Art. She had already discovered a great appreciation for art after a three-year stint in South Africa, where she earned her master’s degree and taught in mission schools and at the University of Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland. She received her bachelor’s degree in art history from Columbia University.
When she wasn’t at the museum, Evans was likely on a jaunt to Egypt or Italy honing her expertise on ancient Egyptian art and culture. If not in a faraway land, she scouted nearby areas for other displays focused on Egypt, often rounding up a busload of friends and strangers alike to accompany her.
While her ashes are sprinkled in the Nile, her legacy is sown at the UT Libraries and the McClung Museum, a destination of discovery for tens of thousands of schoolchildren, college students, and visitors.