The more Ian Wang learned about the UI’s first president — the great John Milton Gregory (1867-80) — the more awestruck he became.
“When I came to the UI in the mid-1990s, my first visit to the World Heritage Museum, then located on the fourth floor of Lincoln Hall, had such a lasting impact on my academic interests and personal life," says the now-president and curator of the Spurlock Museum.
"In that visit, I was not only so impressed to see there stood the Laocoon group and other plaster cast reproductions of the masterworks of Greek and Roman antiquity but also intrigued into a lifetime interest of learning about our own cultural history.
“Here, I would like to quote a UI student’s comment reported by The Daily Illini on an art exhibition in the first university art gallery on the top floor of the University Hall in January 1875 to sum up the impact: ‘It opened a new epoch in all our lives.’
“Since that first visit, I have never stopped researching UI history and collecting of UI artwork and artifacts. In doing so, I have learned that in the early days of the university, John Milton Gregory, the first regent of what was then called Illinois Industrial University, recognized that ‘a great university must reflect the universality of experience, interest and inquiry. Becoming aware of the continuity of time and people and things, we become aware of our responsibility for the future.’
"Gregory knew the harsh reality of his time that most of ‘the University’s students, reared on farms and small towns, had never seen a really beautiful man-made object.’ He was determined to lift students above their environment.
"From Day 1 as the university regent, Gregory firmly believed that ‘man should be primarily educated as a human being and only secondary for his occupation.’ Gregory called for a university to produce ‘clear-headed, broad-breasted scholars, men of fully developed minds who would be valuable citizens capable of taking their places in legislative assemblies or other positions to which they might be called from their normal occupations.’
“Today, Gregory’s original gallery is long gone but Gregory’s museum spirit and mission have not only been carried on but also further developed through all the changes and movements of the university museums over the last 150 years. Many of Gregory’s original art collections and artifacts are now among Spurlock Museum’s current holdings.
“Almost 150 years have passed since Gregory became the university’s first president. There is no question in my mind that he should be largely credited with establishing the university to become it is today.”