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, the Texas Memorial Museum (TMM) was born. It was, at first, a state museum, but was transferred to The University of Texas at Austin museum of natural and cultural sciences. Both because it is a museum of The University of Texas at Austin and because it receives some direct state support, it remains committed to being a museum for all of Texas.
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.
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 the 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 the 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 world wide anthropological exhibits.
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 the 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 due to the 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. More renovation is currently going on behind the scenes.
In 1939, 600 people visited Texas Memorial Museum. Today, more than 85,000 people visit TMM each year, including 40,000 schoolchildren, most participating in guided tours.
The temporary and permanent exhibits in the Texas Memorial Museum are created from holdings of more than 5 million specimens. They include dinosaurs and fossil animals, gems and minerals, as well as recent wildlife specimens. These specimens come from geological and paleontological fieldwork 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 festival 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.
Ownership of TMM was transferred from the State of Texas to The University of Texas at Austin in 1959 due to an apparent lack of money in the State Treasury. This transfer allowed the Texas Memorial Museum to host many more educational and social events throughout the year. TMM has hosted functions in conjunction with The University of Texas at Austin and the city of Austin in the past and have many functions planned for the future.
A memorable event occurred at TMM during the early 1970s. Members of the American Indian Movement (AIM) protested a historic burial exhibit by gathering outside of the museum. As a result of these sit-ins at museums all over the United States, the North American Grave Protection Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) of 1990 required all federally funded museums to submit a summary and a detailed inventory of grave goods, associated objects, and religious objects of North American Indians. Tribes that the objects belonged to were then allowed to ask for the objects back if they’d like. TMM’s historic burial exhibit was eventually taken off display.
As you may guess, not all events at the museum are good ones. During replacement of a water main outside in October of 1995, a pipe in the fourth floor janitor's closet burst. Water filled the walls and began to leak through cracks to the bison display, gun hall (area where The Museum Store is now), and mineral hall on the first floor. Unfortunately, two-thirds of the famous Goodall H. Wooten Gun Collection was damaged, but all pieces were restored to pre-water damage conditions. The firearms had to be cleaned within 24 to 36 hours of being exposed to water, or rusting would begin. The restoration process involved disassembling each piece, saturating the parts in alcohol, drying the parts with compressed air, lubricating them with oil, and reassembling each gun. Everything else was carefully dried with fans and vacuumed to combat the threat of mold.