History of the Texas Memorial Museum
While preparing for the 1936 Texas Centennial Celebrations, politicians and other citizens realized that Texas did not have a state museum. It was not the first time this had been noticed, however. Faculty at The University of Texas at Austin sounded the alarm in the 1910s as East Coast institutions took research collections out of Texas due to the lack of facilities in Texas. “If a Texas student or professor of Geology has need to examine a specimen of Dimetrodon, found ONLY in Texas Permian beds, he would have to visit a museum in Chicago, Michigan, or the East,” wrote Professor F.L. Whitney of The University of Texas at Austin in the 1920s.
In the early 1930s, James E. Pearce, The University of Texas at Austin Chair of Anthropology, later named the museum's first director, and A. Garland Adair, department historian for the Texas American Legion, joined forces to establish a state museum. They wanted the museum to contribute to the conservation of the historic treasures of Texas and also to the educational system of the state. With this joint effort, Texas Memorial Museum (TMM) was born. It was, at first, a state museum, but was transferred to The University of Texas at Austin in 1959. Both because it is a museum on the main campus of the university and because it receives some direct state support, it remains committed to being a museum for all of Texas.
Funding a legacy
In 1933, the American Legion Texas Centennial Committee and The University of Texas at Austin worked to secure federal aid and also aid from the State of Texas. With overwhelming support of the project, the United States Congress appropriated $300,000 for the construction of the museum in 1936. In addition, the 44th Legislature of the State of Texas appropriated $225,000 for furnishing and equipping the museum and for gathering and collecting materials.
Image: Texas Centennial Coin Holder greeting card with Texas Centennial Coins
An additional $90,000 was raised from the sale of Texas Centennial Coins and $12,000 was raised from a University of Texas student drive. The Board of Regents of The University of Texas at Austin chose a site for the museum on campus. With more than $600,000 (today's equivalent of $7.4 million) set aside for the Texas Memorial Museum, construction began in late 1936.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt visited Austin while campaigning, and also attended the ground breaking ceremony. He set off the dynamite to begin construction of Texas Memorial Museum on June 11, 1936.
A steam shovel started excavation for the first of three proposed units during late 1936 and early 1937. Original plans called for wings extending north and south of the present-day building.
On January 15, 1939, Dr. Elias H. Sellards announced that Texas Memorial Museum was officially open to the public. Dr. Sellards succeeded Dr. Pearce after his untimely death shortly before the opening. The opening day exhibits included dioramas of Texas history, rare exhibits of Texas insects, plants, and animal life, and displays of anthropological objects from across the globe.
Design of a Decade
The Regents of The University of Texas at Austin hired Paul Cret, a French architect, as the supervising architect of The University of Texas at Austin campus and Texas Memorial Museum. The building as it stands today is only the first of the three planned units; original plans called for wings extending north and south. Cret later had his name removed from the project because the Regents would not commit to building the wings because of a lack of funds.
Constructed of Texas limestone, the museum is 75 feet high, 116 feet long, and 80 feet wide. The square shape of the building and the bronze front doors indicate that the museum was built in the popular 1930s Art Deco Style. Burgundy-colored paneling inside the great entrance hall, is of French rouge marble from the Pyrenees. Inside the 35 foot tall Great Hall are the seals of the six nations that have ruled Texas: Spain, France, Mexico, the Republic of Texas, the Confederate States of America, and the United States of America.
The building has undergone recent improvements. In 1998, a loading dock was converted into a public entrance ramp to the first floor and a fourth floor public restroom was added. These improvements were made so that the building would be more accessible to wheelchairs and strollers and also in accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990. TMM was closed during August 1999 for office renovations and a rewiring of the building to ensure technological efficiency.
In 1939, 600 people visited Texas Memorial Museum. Today, more than 35,000 people visit TMM each year, including 14,000 preK-16 learners in school groups.
Permanent exhibits in Texas Memorial Museum are created from holdings of more than 5 million specimens. Permanent exhibits include fossils and prehistoric life; gems, minerals and meteorites; and native Texas wildlife. These specimens are a result of biological, geological and paleontological fieldwork and research conducted by The University of Texas at Austin scientists, and also from public donations.
The mountain lion exhibit on the third floor was part of the 1936 University of Texas Centennial Exposition, which was a public event to commemorate the 100 year anniversary of Texas' Independence from Mexico. The exhibit was placed in the Texas Memorial Museum after construction was completed. Other exhibits change to highlight current research and new acquisitions. The Museum also hosts traveling exhibits on loan from other museums.
Programs and Events
Ownership of TMM was transferred from the State of Texas to The University of Texas at Austin in 1959 as a result of reduced funds in the State Treasury. This transfer allowed the Texas Memorial Museum to host many more educational events for both the university and the public throughout the year. Events such as Identification Day, National Fossil Day, Texas Wildlife Day, and Explore UT draw visitors from across the state and provide opportunities to interact one-on-one with scientists and science educators.