Former Texas Memorial Museum reopens with new name, new exhibits

The newly designated Texas Science and Natural History Museum reopened in September after being closed for over a year.

By Glorie G. MartinezOctober 3, 2023 4:44 pm, , ,

Word of the Texas Memorial Museum’s closure last March came hard.

It had been known for some time that the museum – almost 90 years old and an overlooked jewel on the campus of the University of Texas – was struggling. Its closure suggested it might have gone the way of some of the dinosaurs long on display there.

However, the team behind the Texas Memorial Museum wasn’t ready to give up just yet. 

This September, their dedication paid off. The historic institution reopened, complete with new exhibits and a new name. 

Carolyn Conrrat is the managing director of the newly-designated Texas Science and Natural History Museum. She joined the Standard to tell us about the museum’s grand reopening. 

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity. 

Texas Standard: Tell us a little bit about the Texas Memorial Museum’s history. 

Carolyn Connerat: The building was built between 1936 and 1938 by the Texas Legislature to celebrate the Texas centennial – the 100 year anniversary of Texas independence. We actually officially opened in January of 1939. 

The museum must’ve had a much more prominent role on campus for many years, but it had almost come under the shadows of parking garages and other structures on campus. You almost had to know about it. You wouldn’t have just spotted it walking down the street. 

Well, you’re correct. The original architect, Paul Cret, who did other buildings on the UT-Austin campus, designed it with two additional wings on both sides of the current art deco building that we have.

At the time, the Legislature did not have the funds to do that. So, we ended up with just that one center building that we have today. 

We’re about 38,000 square feet, which is pretty small for a museum. About 20,000 of that is our exhibit space. As I like to say, we’re small but mighty. 

What’s changed? If you go back now, what does the museum look like? 

We have all new exhibits on the great hall floor that we have put in.

I’m most excited about our new Tyrannosaur. We have a beautiful new 33-foot-long Tyrannosaur, which is from Big Bend, Texas, as well as the Quetzalcoatlus, the largest flying animal ever, with a 33-foot wingspan, is still in that great hall. Those are our Texas Titans, as we call them. 

We’ve done a whole series of basic core work that needed to be done on this beautiful building – from painting, lighting and new flooring to really cleaning our limestone. We have this beautiful limestone building inside and outside, and we’ve cleaned all of that.

Our mission is to excite, engage and connect curious minds of all ages to the irreplaceable and unique natural history of Texas. We tell that story of life in the natural world from when the planets formed hundreds of millions of years ago through the age of the dinosaurs, through our current time. We’ll also be featuring the advanced research that’s happening here at the university that will make a difference of life in the natural world. 

Michael Minasi / KUT

The main lobby of the Texas Science and Natural History Museum features their “Texas Titans” — replicas of a Tyrannosaur and a Quetzalcoatlus northropi, as pictured on Sept. 21, 2023, before the grand re-opening at the University of Texas at Austin.

What led to the closure of the museum? What were the challenges that the museum was facing and how did you all fight for its revival? 

The museum had lost some of its funding from the Legislature. After COVID, it had closed and then reopened. It only had a couple of staff left. At that point in time, it was a decision by the president and the dean to say, ‘let’s take a step back and say, what do we want to do rather than just continuing as we have been?’

The new title for the museum, the Texas Science and Natural History Museum, certainly is more descriptive than the old name, Texas Memorial Museum. 


We looked at it and we said, ‘a lot of people didn’t even know what it was when it was the Texas Memorial Museum.’ Even though people have been coming here for decades. School buses of children have always come to this beautiful museum. But we really wanted to make sure that people know what they are going to find when they get here. 

So, we went through the process and said, ‘it’s about science and natural history. That should be the name.’ I will say the Texas Memorial Museum will always be carved on the front of the building. It’s still the building. It’s not going away. 

Michael Minasi / KUT

An art installation made of insects is seen in the Texas Wildlife Gallery at the Texas Science and Natural History Museum on Sept. 21, 2023, before the museum’s grand re-opening at the University of Texas at Austin.

A big part of the charm, especially for people who are interested in architecture, are the architectural details. How did you go about making these changes and trying to maintain the architectural integrity of the structure itself?

We focused on honoring the history of this building first. All of the changes we made were really more cosmetic. We had to fix a roof repair that had caused paint to peel. We repainted everything, putting in new lighting that wasn’t fluorescent lights from the sixties. So, it’s only the lighting, which is much more energy efficient. 

We also put in carpet on the upper floors, which had an old linoleum that needed to be replaced. But the basics, especially the Great Hall, were all focused on “how do we preserve the beauty of that building?”

I’m really excited about the Great Hall. When you went in before, it was pretty dark because there were these old draperies that had been put up 85 years ago and had never been changed. They were literally falling apart. We took those down and everyone was like, ‘wow.’

Behind it we could see these beautiful glass block windows that you never saw. We cleaned them, we resealed them, and then we put in motorized UV shades to protect it when the Western sun comes through. When you come into the room, it just has a whole different feel, because it’s bright now and you can see all of the exhibits. 

Michael Minasi / KUT

The Texas Science and Natural History Museum is pictured on Sept. 21, 2023, before their grand re-opening at the University of Texas at Austin.

Since the pandemic, there have been a lot of organizations – museums among them – that have struggled. Is there anything from the experience that you’ve just been through that might serve as a kind of guiding light or an important lesson for other organizations that have struggled with almost going extinct the way that Texas Memorial Museum did? 

I think the key is to look at who your audience is, and ask who do you want to really increase as your audience? We knew as a museum that we needed to become self-supporting. One of the things that we did working with our advisory committee was say, ‘how do we improve the number of people who can come?’ 

We wanted to increase our admissions, which we’ve done with our new exhibits that are really engaging and colorful and informative for people, as well as a membership program that helps people to keep this museum sustained and join us. We’ll also be a major event venue. We’ve already started having events here. People love being able to have a reception or a meeting  here under the dinosaurs – we even had a tailgate. 

It’s a beautiful place and having events in this space is going to really change the feel of it for the hours that we’re not open to the public. 

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