Nearly 90 years ago, an advertisement ran in the Austin American-Statesman for a commemorative coin that would help fund the construction of a new museum to house the state’s great historic treasures. Next week, that museum is set for a grand reopening—with a new dinosaur, new exhibits, and a new name.
The ad for the Texas Centennial Half-Dollar appeared in the December 1934 issue of the newspaper and included illustrated portraits of iconic heroes Sam Houston and David Crockett and a description of the grisly scene following the Battle of San Jacinto. It entreated “every loyal Texan” to head to their bank to “buy a keepsake of Texas.” Many did, and sales of the coins raised about $90,000. The Texas Memorial Museum officially opened in 1939.
After closing in March 2022 to undergo nearly $4 million in renovations to the building and updates to exhibits, the museum returns as the Texas Science & Natural History Museum, a more fitting name for a collection that boasts 5 million specimens including fossils, meteorites, and other natural wonders of the state.
More change can be found inside the Great Hall, where a prehistoric resident of the Big Bend region joins another one the size of a Cessna. The replica of Quetzalcoatlus northropi, a flying dinosaur with a 33-foot wingspan, has soared above museum visitors for about 20 years. Its new mate is a Texas tyrannosaur, a predatory dinosaur that lived at roughly the same time as Quetzalcoatlus.
The tyrannosaur skeleton was reconstructed based on a fossilized jawbone, and paleontologists aren’t sure if it’s a juvenile or an entirely different variation of the species. “No matter what you call it, it’s a fabulous animal from Big Bend,” says paleontologist Pamela Owen, associate director of the museum.
Two new murals now depict Big Bend at the time the dinosaurs lived there 67 million years ago. In one, a Quetzalcoatlus is shown with blue and red facial markings. “We wanted to go brighter because not everything was brown or green,” Owen says. Visitors can even listen to an interpretation of what the animals’ calls may have sounded like.
For the museum’s spruce-up, lasers and vacuums were used to clean 87 years’ worth of stains and dust from its once dingy limestone walls. Long drapes that once hung from interior walls were removed, highlighting original art deco glass block windows. Other upgrades include roof repairs, electrical and plumbing improvements, and new lighting and flooring. The museum’s gift store has been expanded, too.
Renovations aren’t complete, but the museum will remain open as work continues. One planned gallery will highlight current research at the university, and another will cover the history of the museum itself, from its founding during the Texas Centennial to the completion of the art deco building in 1937. A new hands-on learning lab called the Discovery Center is expected to open in 2024.
Improvements will also be made on existing exhibits, including the Paleontology Gallery, where visitors can walk among the fossilized skeletons of dinosaurs found in Texas. They include a 30-foot marine reptile called a mosasaur found in Onion Creek, and an oddly familiar-looking creature called a glyptodon, which resembles an armadillo the size of a BarcaLounger. Wildlife dioramas made in the 1930s that feature Texas critters like bison, porcupines, bobcats, and black bear, also will get freshened up.
“I think this brings science and natural history to life,” says Carolyn Connerat, managing director of the museum, about the upgrades. “To be able to come in and see these fossils and hear these stories about these animals really sparks interest.”
Also returning is the periodic fossil identification program, a popular event that allows the public to bring in their fossils to have them identified by University of Texas paleontologists. The program kicks off again on Oct. 11. But first, the Texas Museum of Science & Natural History’s free public grand opening takes place on Sept. 23 between 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. For more information go here.