Thursday

Austin’s Storied Natural History Museum Reopens with New Name, Fresh Look and Bright Future

 

The newly restored Texas Science & Natural History Museum added a tyrannosaur to its Great Hall, which also features a flying pterosaur. (Credit: Nolan Zunk, University of Texas)

By Dale Weisman
Museum-goers gather around the south entrance to the Texas Science & Natural History Museum (formerly known as the Texas Memorial Museum or TMM) on the University of Texas campus. Children cavort on the bronze statue of a snarling saber-tooth cat (Smilodon fatalis) while parents snap photos. The growing crowd waits eagerly for the museum’s bronze doors to open at 1 p.m. on this special Sunday, Sept. 17. It’s Austin Museum Day, an annual celebration of art, culture, science, nature, history and music at dozens of Austin-area museums. 

It’s also a very special day for TMM – the first time the museum has welcomed the public back in more than a year and half. Temporarily closed since March 2022, the museum used the downtime to complete extensive structural renovations, revitalize its Great Hall, refresh and add new exhibits, and secure its future with new programs and essential funding.

The doors open, and the crowd surges in to see and experience the rejuvenated TMM. Generations of children have visited the museum on school field trips and family outings, and some are returning years later today as parents with their own kids in tow. Sunlight streams through cleaned and resealed Art Deco glass-block windows, illuminating the expansive Great Hall and its gleaming walls of French rouge marble. The Great Hall echoes with murmuring excitement, sprinkled with overheard voices of approval: “It’s good to see the museum all gussied up,” a father says to his daughter. “They’ve obviously cleaned everything,” adds a visitor, pointing to the upper walls adorned with seals of six nations that ruled Texas. Another visitor beams: “The museum is amazing, and everyone loves it!”

Visitors gaze up at the museum’s perennial crowd pleaser: a pterosaur skeleton (Quetzalcoatlus northropi), the largest flying creature ever with a 33-foot wingspan, soaring over the Great Hall. A newly installed reconstructed skeleton of Tyrannosaurus rex, also 33 feet long, strikes a fearsome midstride pose. UT researchers discovered the fossilized remains of both “Texas Titans,” including a T. rex maxilla (upper jaw), in Big Bend National Park. Along the hall’s western wall, a pair of bold, new murals depicts how these colorful prehistoric creatures might have looked in their habitats 67 million years ago.

The museum’s expanded gift store is abuzz with kids and families checking out the panoply of science- and nature-themed games, puzzles, toys, books, posters, jewelry and rocks. Across the Great Hall, an all-new exhibit, dubbed Texas Transformation, fills a space that previously housed staff cubicles and a mail/copy room. Visually stunning infographic wall panels chronicle a 600-million-year timeline of evolving plant and animal life in Texas spanning the Paleozoic, Mesozoic and Cenozoic eras and ending with the Anthropocene, our current geologic epoch dominated by human impact on global ecosystems and climate. A four-minute paleogeographic animation loop shows the dynamics of plate tectonics and Texas’ geographic position in the Earth’s ever-shifting continental landscape.

A modern longhorn skull resides next to a replica skull of an ancient bison that once lived in Texas. These are part of the museum's new Texas Transformation exhibit. (Credit: Nolan Zunk, UT).


Standing inside the Texas Transformation room, Pamela Owen, TMM’s associate director and a vertebrate paleontologist, marvels at the high visitor turnout, energy and excitement. “In the first 20 minutes of opening, more than 700 people came through our doors,” said Owen. “And this is just a dry run for our grand opening celebration on Saturday, September 23.”

The opening of the Texas Science & Natural History Museum is much more than a TMM 2.0 reboot. It’s the next phase of the museum’s evolution, doubling down on its deep roots in natural history. Conceived in the early 1930s as a state natural history museum and built as part of the 1936 Texas Centennial Celebrations, the Texas Memorial Museum opened in its current square-shaped, limestone-clad Art Deco edifice in 1939. Some of the original specimens and collections were previously housed in UT’s Main Building and displayed in Gregory Gymnasium during UT’s Texas Centennial Exposition.

Over the decades, TMM amassed an enormous collection of fossils, specimens, artifacts and other exhibits showcasing Texas history, culture, wildlife, geology and paleontology. The State of Texas transferred TMM ownership to the University of Texas in 1959, establishing the museum as a UT campus landmark that hosted many educational, university and community events. In 2003, believing that TMM’s holdings had grown too fragmented, the museum’s director transferred the eclectic cultural history items to other UT collections including the Briscoe Center for American History and the Texas Archeological Research Laboratory. And TMM came full circle back to natural history.

In recent years, the TMM has endured financial woes that might have sunk other less resilient and beloved institutions. In 2013, the College of Natural Sciences cut 75 percent of TMM’s funding, and yet the doors remained open. Ten years later, the museum closed during the height of the Covid pandemic, and then reopened in 2021, only to close again in March 2022 due to funding cuts and staff departures.

Enter Carolyn Connerat, the museum’s new managing director, and Pamela Owen, a TMM employee for 23 years who also serves as a research associate at the Jackson School of Geosciences, specializing in Texas vertebrate paleontology. They formed the ideal “skeleton crew” to navigate the TMM through its dire straits while rethinking funding, programs, renovations, collections and exhibits.

“We are a great matched pair in terms of our relative strengths,” said Owen. “That’s how we pulled this off.” While new to the natural history scene, Connerat brought strengths in management, marketing, promotion and fund raising, honed through executive roles at UT’s Provost Office and more than 20 years of private-sector experience. Backed by a supportive advisory committee, the indefatigable duo worked a miracle – readying the TMM for its grand opening after 15 months of nonstop effort.

Connerat added, “Much of what we did was basic renovations that hadn’t been done in 85 years – things like roof repairs, electrical and plumbing updates, painting, new lighting and flooring. We cleaned every inch of the walls in the Great Hall. When we took down the draperies and saw the glass-block windows, everyone said WOW!” In place of the dusty old drapes, newly installed motorized shades can be lowered to shield the hall from late-afternoon sunlight and damaging UV radiation.

“We’re not done yet – we’ve just begun,” said Connerat, not quite ready to take a victory lap. “We’re still in the process of updating our downstairs and third-floor exhibits. We want everyone to come back in and enjoy what we have and bring back busloads of children.”

“The museum’s mission is to inspire and engage curious minds about science and the natural history of Texas,” added Connerat. “We think this is a wonderful place for the education of K-through-12 students, for STEM education, and for anyone wants to spend time studying science and natural history.”

Connerat and Owen plan to refresh the museum’s existing Paleontology Gallery on the first floor (anchored by the menacing Onion Creek Mosasaur, Shoal Creek Plesiosaur, armadillo-like Glyptodon and sail-backed Dimetrodon) and the Texas Wildlife Gallery on the third floor (with timeless wildlife dioramas and taxidermied megafauna including a mountain lion, bison and bear). “We will bring the color palette and energy of the Texas Transformation to each floor and gallery over time,” said Owen.

Forthcoming exhibits will include the third-floor Memorial Gallery exploring the TMM’s rich history and the fourth-floor Science Frontier showcasing UT Austin’s advanced research on topics ranging from biodiversity to sustainability to human health. With only 18,000 square feet of exhibit space (one-tenth the size of the Perot Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas), Connerat and Owen plan to make the most of every bit of museum space to tell the story of natural history and natural sciences in Texas.

Funding and revenue are key to the museum’s long-term plans. To that end, the Texas Legislature threw TMM a generous lifeline this summer – a one-time $8 million funding infusion. TMM also plans to grow its own revenue. “Our goal is to be self-supporting over the next few years through admissions, a new membership program, special events and philanthropy,” said Connerat. “I’m confident we can do that.”

The museum's Art Deco exterior, on the University of Texas campus. (Credit: UT) 


The TMM building, with its restored, gleaming-white limestone fa├žade, has “good bones” beyond its paleontological exhibits. The Art Deco landmark provides a stunning venue for private indoor and outdoor events ranging from weddings and receptions to seated dinners to tailgate parties. A large, permanent tented area for events shades TMM’s west patio, while a pollinator garden, created in collaboration with the Wildflower Center, has been installed near the main entrance.

“’Texas Memorial Museum’ is still carved on the outside of the building so that name will always be a part of this building’s history,” said Connerat. “TMM has been used for many decades, so we’re going to keep that acronym.”

The new name, Texas Science & Natural History Museum, clears up years of confusion over the museum’s exhibits and mission, which have nothing to do with war memorials or the nearby Texas Memorial Stadium. Connerat explains, “This museum is about life in the natural world, from the formation of our planet through the age of the dinosaurs and into our current time.”

“We are all part of the natural world,” adds Owen. “Coming here to the museum is a reminder that we are part of this wonderful history on a really special planet. How could that not be gratifying?”