An associate director and a security guard. That’s who remained.
It was late March 2022, and the Texas Memorial Museum had just closed its doors — with no clear plan for how it would reopen again. In the Great Hall, where, for decades, hundreds of thousands of Texas schoolchildren once had craned their heads upward in wonder, the world’s largest flying creature ever, Quetzalcoatlus northropi, soared in dim silence, as a quarter inch of dust on the limestone walls surrounding the pterosaur continued to grow.
“I wasn’t assuming it would all work out, but I’m pretty stubborn,” says Associate Director Pamela Owen, who has been with the museum since 2003. “Part of me said, we’ve got to keep on fighting to keep the museum going. I love this place.”
What had begun 87 years earlier out of scientific necessity and in a grand flourish of state pride — its ground broken by FDR, its monumental art deco building designed by UT Tower architect Paul Cret, its contents having included treasures of state history and natural history alike — at last had flatlined. Perhaps the Texas Memorial Museum was simply something whose time had passed.
But this week, the museum opens again — with stunning new exhibits, a new business model, a refined focus and a new name: the Texas Science & Natural History Museum. (Since the words Texas Memorial Museum are etched on the structure, it is still the Texas Memorial Museum Building.)
Many people wanted to revive the museum, but one of the first fortuitous events came about because of a gift given decades earlier. State Rep. Glenn Rogers, a rancher and veterinarian from North Texas, had heard that the museum long had held some artifacts once in his family. Rogers wanted to see them, and the request worked its way to President Jay Hartzell’s deputy for governmental affairs and initiatives, Andrea Sheridan.
Sheridan and her colleague Jenna Watts, director of state affairs, arranged a field trip to the museum with Rogers. Sheridan and Watts both were overwhelmed with sadness on seeing the storied museum struggling to remain open. “It pulled at our heartstrings, honestly,” Sheridan said. “We left there, and said, ‘Is there anything we can do to save this museum?’” Reviving the museum became a passion project for the whole government-affairs team.
Sheridan reached out to Hartzell and to David Vanden Bout, who had just become dean of the College of Natural Sciences. That same spring, Vanden Bout had launched a project examining opportunities to improve public engagement with science at the University, and the museum emerged as an area of real opportunity. Sheridan suggested forming a small advisory group to study how the museum might be made self-sustaining. Hartzell and Vanden Bout enthusiastically agreed, and the group of five convened. They included Rita Ashley, Richard Craig, David Anderson, Kim Bonnen and Michelle Skupin — each bringing varied expertise and connections.
Their first report stated that reviving the museum would require a full-time executive immediately — someone who could think big-picture, make executive decisions, network, ask for support, ride herd on contractors and put fresh eyes on the museum. Many people thought of the same person. It was Vanden Bout who sent the text: “Carolyn, I have a project for you.”
Energetic and extraverted, Carolyn Connerat came to UT in 2005 as director of annual giving and had a variety of roles in development and communications before joining the Provost’s Office, from which she recently had retired as vice provost for enrollment management, overseeing a large and complicated portfolio that included UT admissions. “I failed at retirement!” Connerat says with a laugh. She agreed to be the managing director of a closed museum.
The charge from Hartzell and Vanden Bout was simple and came in the form of a two-part question: What do we need to do to make this museum self-sustaining, and if it can’t be, what do we need to do to close it?
“I think the museum actually closing and running out of money was a great thing,” Watts says, “because it provided the opportunity to reimagine it.” Hartzell and Vanden Bout each kicked in funds from their respective budgets, and the state agreed to a one-time appropriation of $8 million. Philanthropic support also started to arrive. Soon the museum had $12 million for the next three to four years to build a bridge to self-sustainability.
The museum had begun with a need. Texas paleontologists, many of them on UT’s faculty, noted that, just as British museums had removed cultural treasures from Egypt and Greece, museums outside of Texas, particularly in the Midwest and on the East Coast, were removing the most valuable fossils from the Lone Star State because Texas had no museum to properly preserve and display them. Scientists had been pushing for years for a natural history museum at the University. “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,” complained UT professor F.L. Whitney in the 1920s.
But it was not until the scientific need got coupled with state pride that things began to happen. As the Texas Centennial of 1936 approached, the Legislature funded more than 1,000 monuments across the state to commemorate its independence. These included the transformation of Fair Park in Dallas and the building of nine museums including this one.
The Legislature established the museum and funded part of its construction, but the federal government chipped in $300,000, and a Centennial Committee sold commemorative coins to raise more money.
Paul Cret, architect of the UT Tower, designed the building. Cret’s scheme called for two additional wings on either side of what we see today. When the money could not be raised to fund the whole structure, Cret quit. This explains the museum’s relative smallness. While most other museums in the state have 200,000 square feet of exhibit space, this one has 18,000. The upside, especially for families, is that the whole museum can be appreciated in about 90 minutes.