Walk toward the marble front steps of the building formerly known as the Texas Memorial Museum, and you’ll be greeted by a saber-toothed cat perched on a rock. Its jaws open around scimitar fangs, and its shoulders are half-hunched, as if the fearsome feline is contemplating a pounce. Inside the 38,000-square-foot, Art Deco–influenced museum, which sits just off Trinity Street on the University of Texas at Austin campus, a huge sea lizard dives amid glass-walled displays of Permian amphibians and Pleistocene ground sloths. Even the echoing entrance hall lies beneath the skeletal shadow of enormous pterosaur wings.
This 86-year-old building has long been a public repository for many of the state’s most spectacular vanished creatures. Despite the natural riches on display, the museum was perennially underfunded and overshadowed by nearby institutions like the Blanton Museum of Art and the Bullock Texas State History Museum, persisting largely as one of the city’s overlooked gems. For decades, Austin’s only natural history museum limped along with a bare-bones staff—from 2016 to 2020, it had just three full-time employees—and increasingly outdated exhibits, even as it played host to an estimated 35,000 annual visitors. When it closed in 2020, during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, some in the broader community feared that the museum might itself go extinct.
Luckily, those fears have been proven wrong. After a nineteen-month closure for extensive renovations, the museum will reopen its doors on September 23 with a new name—the Texas Science and Natural History Museum—as well as the first in a series of new exhibitions. It’s all part of an ongoing renovation that aims to restore the institution to its midcentury prominence.
June 11, 1936 was declared Roosevelt Day in Austin. The front page of the Austin American-Statesman featured a huge photo of the president, who was then campaigning for reelection. After giving a speech from the caboose of his train, FDR headed to the UT campus for the groundbreaking of the Texas Memorial Museum. A crowd of thousands, all dressed in their Sunday best, cheered as Roosevelt pressed a button to ignite the dynamite and officially begin construction. “Now the state of Texas and Austin will receive a substantial birthday present during the observance of the Texas Centennial,” gushed the Statesman.
The new museum was a major achievement for Texas, in part because its founding was a bright spot during the tumultuous days of the Great Depression. A flood of New Deal cash had poured into the state to help fund celebrations of Texas’s centennial, fueling the construction of multiple monuments and museums. Local scientists wanted in. “There was a push for a state natural history museum, in part, because all of these paleontologists were coming from all over the world to Big Bend and other places and taking away specimens,” says managing director Carolyn Connerat. “State paleontologists wanted a place in Texas where we could actually preserve them.” So with a combination of federal and state funding, the Texas Memorial Museum—a limestone-walled building designed by renowned architect Paul Cret—rose amid the oak groves on the university campus in Austin.
Despite the pomp and circumstance of Roosevelt’s visit, the museum faced funding woes almost from its inception. The initial plan was for a large natural history museum, says Pamela Owen, now the associate director. But while the central building was soon finished, the promised funding for additional wings failed to materialize. When the museum opened in 1939, it became Texas’s first state museum—but had just 18,000 square feet of exhibit space, far less than planners had counted on. Yet lawmakers refused to earmark dollars for it throughout the forties and fifties; in 1959, they voted to transfer its ownership and management to UT. Over the decades that followed, money was often tight, and while the grand old building’s bones remained strong, ailments piled up. Dust and grime caked the great tapestries in the interior hall, its exterior walls dark with biofilm, water leaks bubbling the wallpaper. An outdoor structure built to house Glen Rose dinosaur tracks deteriorated badly enough to be boarded up in 2004.
The cuts kept coming. In 2013, the university dismantled the Texas Natural Science Center, the umbrella organization the museum belonged to, as part of a $600,000 budget cut. Without funding from UT, the museum was left to run off of private donations, gift shop sales, and admissions. After closing in 2020 due to the COVID-19 outbreak, the museum reopened briefly in 2021—only to then lose the last $75,000 of its state funding. At the end, the staff consisted entirely of Owen and a single security guard, she recalls: “We didn’t have enough people on staff to even accept money.”
But the museum’s sudden closure in March 2022 proved to be something of a blessing in disguise. At that point, Owen says, UT president Jay Hartzell and David Vanden Bout, dean of the College of Natural Sciences, decided it was time to figure out a more sustainable path for the institution. To that end, they brought in Connerat—who’d been on the brink of retirement after seventeen years in the university system, with no museum management experience—as managing director. Advocates also helped persuade the Legislature to cough up a one-time allocation of $8 million earlier this year to help pay for necessary building repairs and exhibit development, as well as seven full-time employees.
The most dramatic change will be visible upon the museum’s grand reopening on September 23. Until recently, the entrance hall was a gloomy space, its windows shrouded by degraded tapestries. A few theoretically mobile boxes of artifacts and gems sat under a cast of the Cessna-sized pterosaur Quetzalcoatlus northropi. After the renovations, the hall has been transformed into an airy, inviting space.
The Quetzalocoatlus—perhaps Texas’s most iconic and spectacular fossil, discovered by UT grad student Douglas Lawson in Big Bend National Park in 1971—remains. But it’s been joined by a 33-foot Tyrannosaurus cast, mounted as if at a full sprint, jaws open as it charges toward visitors entering the gallery. The mount, constructed for the museum by the commercial preparators Triebold Paleontology, isn’t just an impressive, splashy exhibit, Owen says. It also represents something of an ongoing paleontological mystery. Since part of an unusually slim upper jaw was discovered in West Texas in 1970, Owen says, “There’s been a lot of discussion amongst paleontologists: Is this some really small Tyrannosaurus rex? Or is this another tyrannosaur in that genus? Maybe a more southern species?”
It’s a way for the museum to further explore one of Texas’s most iconic fossil landscapes: the Javelina Formation of the Big Bend, the last great assemblage of giant dinosaurs in the state before extinction. New murals designed by Museworks line the back walls, depicting the forests and floodplains of 67-million-year-old West Texas: a drinking Quetzalcoatlus, immense sauropods and horned dinosaurs, and, of course, a Texas tyrannosaur charging out of the forest, its jaws crunching into the hip of an herbivorous hadrosaur. Smaller displays are set into the murals, complete with casts of Tyrannosaur and Quetzalcoatlus, interactive games, and a sound installation that evokes the eerie sounds of a Cretaceous forest, complete with hooting, grunting dinosaurs—produced, Owen notes, by mixing the booming of modern-day cassowary birds with the rumble of crocodiles.
The second-floor space is also intended to serve as a venue for private events, something the museum’s previous incarnation didn’t permit. But the events business is an important funding source for modern museums, so the institution is catching up, with twenty events planned between September 1 and the end of December. It’s part of a series of other administrative changes to how the museum runs—among them an increase in admission prices (now $10 for adults; entrance remains free for UT students, faculty, and staff) and a greater emphasis on communications and PR work.
“You have to let people know it’s here to get them to come in on a regular basis,” Connerat says. “These [efforts] are important if we’re going to become a self-supporting entity.”
The second floor hosts another new hall as well: an administrative space that’s been converted into a capsule of 600 million years of Lone Star history. A bright mix of art and interactive displays takes visitors through the formation of the Earth, the age of Permian fin-backed predators and Triassic crocodile relatives, the advance and retreat of the inland seas during the dominion of the dinosaurs, and finally the spreading grasslands and growing cold of the age of mammals. There are plenty of fossil casts in this hall too, including the fearsome maw of the dinosaur-like Postosuchus and the massive horned skull of an ice age bison.
The hall, titled “Texas Transformation,” is designed to highlight the museum’s other exhibits, acting as a kind of overture. “Historically we used to have standalone floors,” Connerat says. “Now, we really want things to be more integrated, with floors all tied together by this common theme of finding your place in the natural world.”
Upon the museum’s reopening, the majority of the existing exhibits on those floors will be open to the public—but the renovations are far from over. Other floors will be updated in staggered stages over the coming months, from much-needed new signage and a new discovery center on the first floor, to new archival exhibits amid the taxidermy displays on the third floor and an entirely reimagined fourth floor devoted to current scientific research at UT.
When visitors arrive, they’ll see numerous signs announcing that, far from being an extinct institution, the Texas Science and Natural History Museum is evolving to meet an uncertain future.
“I want people to see us as a work in progress,” Connerat says, “so they have a sense of what the museum is today and what it’s going to become.”
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