Longtime museum director dies at 92

Published: Friday, January 23, 2009 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 22, 2009 at 11:24 p.m.

A longtime director of the Florida Museum of Natural History, who guided the museum through its move to campus and growth, died Wednesday in Gainesville.

Joshua Clifton "J.C." Dickinson was 92. He directed the museum for 20 years, during which time it moved from its off-campus location in the Seagle Building to the campus hall that now bears Dickinson's name.

"He really created what the museum is today," said Darcie MacMahon, director of exhibits for the museum.

Dickinson started attending UF in 1933, remaining affiliated with the university except for brief interludes until his retirement.

He kept a passion for the university even after that, maintained contact with the museum's current director and died watching the UF basketball game, said his son, Josh Dickinson.

"He basically devoted his entire adult life to the university and the museum," he said.

Dickinson received a bachelor's degree in zoology, master's degree in aquatic biology and doctorate in ornithology from UF.

He was named acting director of the museum in 1959, and two years later became director.

The Florida native's experience with the state's natural beauty before its development influenced his work, said Doug Jones, the museum's current director.

"He had a natural love of Florida and its flora and fauna from his childhood," he said.

He led the drive to move the museum from the crowded Seagle Building to a hall on campus, landing a federal grant to pay for a new building.

Dickinson thought it was important for the museum's academic mission and the benefit of students to have the museum on campus, Jones said.

"He understood the impact that students could have to create a vibrant museum," he said.

The museum's research collection and staff is still held in Dickinson Hall, but its exhibits have since moved to their current location in Powell Hall.

Dickinson was responsible for long-time exhibits such as "the cave," Jones said, which was one of the first exhibits that immersed visitors rather than just giving them something to look at.

President Gerald Ford named Dickinson to the National Endowment for the Arts, where he served from 1976 to 1982.

Josh Dickinson said his father was proud of that accomplishment, despite his lack of a background in the arts.

"He could give really unbiased judgments on things," he said.

MacMahon conducted an oral history interview with J.C. Dickinson in 2006 to coincide with the museum's 100th anniversary.

She said she was struck by the fact that Dickinson said there were no parts of his time at the museum that he found stressful.

"He said, 'I woke up every day and looked forward to coming to work," she said.

Contact Nathan Crabbe at 338-3176 or nathan.crabbe@gvillesun.com.

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