Preserving the Future of the Texas Memorial Museum
After years of neglect and underfunding, Austin’s only natural history museum reconsiders its role
Tucked away on the University of Texas campus is an Art Deco building containing the state’s natural history. There are fossils discovered in Onion, Shoal, and Bouldin creeks; taxidermied displays of Texas wildlife from the thorny shrubs of South Texas to the piney woods of East Texas; and the 36-foot-wingspan Quetzalcoatlus, a Texas pterosaur, one the biggest flying animals ever. The building is home to the Texas Memorial Museum.
In March, the natural history museum, long plagued by funding cuts and trying to regain its footing post-pandemic, closed abruptly. Two employees left, and the museum no longer had the staff it needed to stay open or perform basic operations like money handling. Its doors shut with no clear answer as to when they would reopen. Now management is using that abrupt closure as a chance to rethink the collection and what it could be. "It's a great opportunity. Let's stop and reassess," said Carolyn Connerat, the museum's new interim managing director.
A Piece of History
Part of the charm of the Texas Memorial Museum is the history of the physical space. The nearly 85-year-old building has hardly changed at all since its construction. "It's a moment in time and history," said Connerat. The Texas limestone walls and imported French rouge marble that enclose the exhibits have held up well, but need a cleaning and some restoration, and that comes with complications. There are names and initials that visitors have carved into the stone (one dating back to 1951) so what was once vandalism is now historic.
Before the latest closure, museumgoers would enter up the front steps and into the Great Hall, a large room from whose vaulted ceiling Quetzalcoatlus hangs. The giant geometric-patterned windows are in need of cleaning but have otherwise held up well: However, the curtains that hang over the windows on the west side of the hall are original to the building and will need to go. The museum's directors hope to replace them with UV-blocking screens, but it will take scaffolding to change them out.
Art Deco accents throughout keep visitors firmly rooted in the building's history, but in a few places the true age of the building peeks through. Paint peels off the walls: evidence of some roof leaks that need attention. Light fixtures that haven't been cleaned in years collect dust. Again, scaffolding will be required to reach these problems.
For the most part, the collections stayed out on display while closed. Upstairs in the Texas Wildlife Hall and downstairs in the Great Hall the collections of fossils and taxidermied animals remain in position, and the paleontology lab remains undisturbed. Some pieces from the Great Hall have been put away to prepare for cleaning. The top floor gallery is empty, though that was in flux even before the closure.
A small building separate from the rest of the museum, built in 1940 by the federal Works Progress Administration, holds the Glen Rose dinosaur tracks: a 12-by-24-foot section of 112 million-year-old footprints of a therapod and sauropod. That addition is completely closed off because of structural issues, but Connerat is for the most part optimistic about the state of the main building. The elevators work. The HVAC works. The security system is in good shape. There're no structural problems in the main building. "It's not like we're having to renovate," she said. "It's not like we're having to completely tear out elevators and put them in again."
The greater challenge than physically maintaining the building may be maintaining the museum's sustainability. For years, the museum has faced a series of slashes to its funding. A restructuring of UT's College of Natural Sciences in 2013 cost the museum most of its funding. The museum had to adjust and began relying on admission fees for funding, trying to support itself while operating with a much smaller staff.
In 2020, the museum was forced to close for a year during COVID. When it reopened, it was soon hit with another blow, losing the last $75,000 the state Legislature had been supplying. The museum was operating on that reduced budget until March, when the museum's visitor services manager and a part-time senior administrative associate both left, prompting this latest unexpected closure.
Instead of rehiring and reopening to get back to business as usual, the museum stayed closed. Connerat, who had been at the university for 17 years, most recently as the vice provost of enrollment management, had been planning to retire in December but took over as interim managing director. Discussion began about how to keep this piece of history open.
The museum's funding, for now, comes from existing funds and ongoing financial support from the College of Natural Sciences. For now, operating costs are relatively low. The exhibits are fine sitting untouched in their humidity-controlled galleries and don't need much maintenance beyond an annual cleaning by Associate Director Pamela R. Owen. The only staff are Connerat, Owen, and a security guard. If no one's coming by, the lights in the galleries don't even need to be turned on.
A Future for Our Past
Though the museum staff is small now, Connerat and Owen have high hopes for the future, but there's still lots to be worked out. The beloved exhibits like the fossils in the Hall of Geology and Paleontology and the dioramas in the Wildlife Hall aren't going anywhere, though they are due for some updated signage. More up in the air is the future of the top floor gallery. The directors plan to work with the university to design new exhibits, though there's no plan for exactly what will go there.
The other critical piece of Texas Memorial's future is fundraising. The goal is for the reopened museum to become self-sufficient, and earlier this year UT Austin President Jay Hartzell and College of Natural Sciences Dean Vanden Bout appointed a special volunteer committee to develop recommendations for the reopening and the museum's long-term stability. One proposed source of funding is allowing private events to be hosted at the museum. Philanthropy will be another source, and reopening to begin collecting admissions and earning gift shop revenue again will also play a role. The plan is for visitors to start returning in September 2023, though the reopening could happen in stages. "It should be open to everyone, so that everyone feels like they can learn about science and not be afraid of science," said Connerat. "We want it to be a really welcoming place."
Editor's note: This article has been updated to reflect ongoing plans for the museum's financial stability.