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Arts & Culture

Massive Witte Expansion Set To Open

Busloads of elementary school kids stream through the great big square floor-to-ceiling glass entryway to the new Witte Museum.

A young child peered up and said, "look, look, look!"

The renovated Witte Museum is opening Saturday morning, but elementary school children from all over town are getting a preview. On a recent preview, bus loads of  kids streamed through the great big square floor-to-ceiling glass entryway. Their attention was immediately caught by the flying dinosaur they call Quetzi, perched overhead, and a screen behind it showing other Quetzis in flight.

"There's no preparing yourself to see those kids' faces when they walk through the doors!"

The Witte's Director of Play is Christina Cassella.

"They walk in, they look up, they see our fully fleshed-out Quetzalcoatlus Northropi--Quetzi--flying over them with this beautiful screen of the Texas sky...and then right in front of them, almost close enough to touch, is a Tyrannosaurus Rex. Seeing them react to that, and point--wow!--is very emotional for me. And I know it's very emotional for our team, too," Cassella says.

Enthusiastic student Jeremy liked what he saw.

"It was huge, and it looked like it was flying."

Suspended from the ceiling, it does appear to not be earthbound. Jeremy also liked the Texas Wild exhibit showing the state's huge variety of habitats, and the animals you find in them.

"I saw a buffalo and a bear and a owl," Jeremy says.

Harper already had almost a tour guide understanding of the cycle of life in wild Texas.

"Yes, the prey and the predators. How the owls eat the mice and how the bobcats eat the bird," Harper says. 

Cassella says they're combining facts and actors and creativity to find new ways to engage visitors.

"We have a brand new character, Dr. Doug, who is a paleontologist of course, with our dinosaurs. And he works closely with Dr. Dig, our archeologist. And it's a great way for students, and visitors of all ages, to interact with the galleries," she says.

Witte CEO Marise McDermott explains that the idea is to connect to museum-goers of all ages by breathing humanity into the learning experience.

"It's a constant story-telling experience here at the Witte. Where our chili queens, vaqueros, cowboys, our dinosaur, Tex Rex comes out--it's not only the building. It's the personas that our children and our families encounter," McDermott says.

The Witte was renovated and added to four times during its first 90 years, but the last real makeover was nearly half a century back. Two years ago much of the museum and the '60s-era Witte facade came down to make way for the airy, 65,000 square foot expansion, designed by Lake Flato Architects.

"So a lot of what we've done here with this architecture with Lake Flato is to look at the park and the original Witte architecture and the Missions and celebrate--it's very modern, but it's also inspired by the history of the Witte, the park and the Missions."

The museum is divided into thematic rooms where natural sounds give visitors a feel for the state's ecosystems, and even a thunderstorm is projected on the ceiling.

"Well, you have to have a storm every once in a while to feed the rivers and the aquifers," McDermott laughed.

She says to tell Texas's expansive story they chose to look at it through what she calls three windows.

"The three different windows are millions of years, thousands of years, and hundreds of years. The millions of years allow us to reveal the paleontological specimens of dinosaurs that roamed this land. Then thousands of years -- there are bountiful numbers of people who lived here for ten thousand years, and they gathered at the river.  And then hundreds of years. These are astonishing stories of course, from Spanish settlement to chili queens, cattle kings, oil workers.

As a natural history museum, the Witte also made use of some of its environment--pecan trees that had to come down during expansion. They transformed that pecan wood into dozens of benches, desks and gift store display cases. Sixty-eight trees were also planted nearby to again begin the cycle of life. Yet another lesson about nature for these kids to learn.  

One of the visiting children named John exclaimed proudly, "I am having a blast!"

And on Saturday morning, the Witte reveals it all to the public in an opening ceremony that McDermott says holds a great big surprise. 

Find more on the Witte Museum here