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Sarcophagus shapes Ackland Art Museum’s history

Benefactor entombed within museum

The Ackland Art Museum was founded through the bequest of William Hayes Ackland. Mr. Ackland died in 1940, he originally left his bequest to Duke University. Duke's trustees refused the bequest and so it was given to UNC, which Ackland had also considered before he died.

For Duke University, it ended with a corpse.

For UNC, it started with one.

The Ackland Art Museum is home to the sarcophagus in which William Hayes Ackland, the original benefactor of the museum, is entombed.
The museum plans to celebrate Ackland’s presence at its second benefit gala Sept. 24.

The Black & White Gala will feature an actor playing the late Ackland, roaming the galleries of his museum and reading aloud his poetry.

Last November, the Silver Factory Gala, which celebrated the work and life of Andy Warhol, brought in $20,000 for the museum.

The gala served as the Ackland’s main fundraising function for 2010.

This year, the focus is returning to the museum and its rich history.

Ackland originally left his art collection to Duke when he died in 1940.

But when Duke discovered the stipulation in Ackland’s will that his tomb reside within the museum’s walls, the university’s trustees decided the collection should be housed elsewhere.

Following Duke’s refusal of Ackland’s bequest and nine years of litigation, the museum — and Ackland’s entombed body — went to UNC.
“To have the person who made it all happen, here, is really cool,” said Emily Bowles, director of communications for the museum.

Bowles said while one might think younger visitors to the Ackland would find the presence of a dead body disturbing, the truth is just the opposite.

“Kids love that he’s here,” she said. “It emphasizes to them that it’s this guy who made this happen.”

Though Duke passed on the chance at Ackland’s collection, the university received its own art museum, now the Nasher Museum of Art, in 1969.

A member of the Nasher’s curatorial staff could not be reached for comment on Duke’s connection to the Ackland.

Wendy Livingston, manager of marketing and communications for the Nasher, said the Ackland and the Nasher maintain a good relationship.

“Whatever its history, we’re just glad that the Ackland exists,” she said. “They’re a wonderful collaborator.”

Some exhibits on which the two museums have partnered include last fall’s “Big Shots: Andy Warhol Polaroids” and 2010’s “Color Balance: Paintings by Felrath Hines.”

“Having another high-caliber art museum in the area helps to make a vibrant art scene in the Triangle,” Livingston said.

She also said that two art museums in such close proximity provide variety as well as ensure one another’s quality.

“You don’t want just one art museum as a choice— you want several collaborating,” Livingston said. “We keep each other on our toes.”

Though the Ackland’s presence at UNC isn’t a secret, Bowles said that Ackland himself may still be unaware of the move.

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She said she makes this clear when she gives museum tours.

“I always tell visitors to the museum, ‘Don’t talk too loudly around him, because he thinks he’s at Duke.’”

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