Show your Texan pride by supporting this UT museum

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Austin prides itself on being an innovation hub, the home of tech giants and Elon Musk’s new base.

But Austin is also the largest city in the country without a multidisciplinary science and technology museum, a region without a permanent planetarium to inspire astronomers. And now our community’s natural history museum, the Texas Memorial Museum on the University of Texas campus, faces an uncertain future.

The latest state budget slashed funding for the museum, a place where generations of visitors craned their necks to the enormous winged Pterosaur hanging in the Great Hall and peered into the throat of a razor-toothed Mosasaur threatening the first floor.

If UT doesn’t come up with a new plan to fund the museum, director Edward Theriot told me: “we have two years, then we are closed”.

I pressed UT on the matter this week, and there are signs of hope. David Vanden Bout, acting dean of the College of Natural Sciences, said he wanted to keep the museum open and “give it a solid future.” Details remain to be determined, however.

The Onion Creek Mosasaur, in the Geology and Paleontology Hall of the Texas Memorial Museum, lived over 66 million years ago.  The sea creature was about 30 feet long, including a tail of about 12 feet.

I learned of the fate of the museum when my colleague Megan Menchaca revealed how state lawmakers cut $ 5.2 million from various UT programs, including the museum, while also finding another $ 6 million to establish a Liberty Institute curatorial think tank at the university. More money for political positions.

It’s not that Texas can’t afford to run this museum. More recently, the state’s investment was less than $ 76,000 per year. As he signed the state budget this year that wiped out those funds, Gov. Greg Abbott boasted that texas had “a budget surplus of over $ 1 billion.”

Nor has anyone questioned the value this museum offers to the public. Before COVID-19, about 70,000 people visited the exhibits each year. Half of the visitors during the school year are students on school trips. They learn more about our evolving planet, evolving species and scientific research. The museum also offers hands-on training for science teachers and a host of online resources.

“The value, for me, is in connecting people to the world around them, to make them better informed citizens to make the decisions we need to make,” Theriot said.

From the rules of land use planning to responding to a pandemic, sound policies often begin with a solid understanding of the science.

The challenge facing the museum is the lack of ownership. The state has little interest in supporting the natural history museum it launched in the 1930s; indeed, he transferred the institution to UT in 1959. And UT, which focuses on undergraduate and graduate education, does not consider a museum for primary school students to be at the heart of his mission. When Abbott asked various state agencies last year to identify 5% budget cuts, UT returned, in part, with the museum.

Nonetheless, I am encouraged by the acting dean’s commitment this week to developing a plan for the museum.

“We are actively exploring options to renew the museum and increase revenues, including replacing long-term public funds with traditional sources of museum funding such as ticket sales, gift shop experiences and donations,” Vanden Bout told me in a statement. “The college understands that this may require finding internal funds to link to a new sustainable funding model. “

Jessica Holt visits the Texas Memorial Museum's Geology and Paleontology Room on Friday.  The exhibit includes dinosaurs and creatures from the Ice Age.

To be clear, the museum already charges entrance fees, runs a gift shop, and receives donations. In the four years leading up to the COVID-19 closures, the museum generated an average of $ 92,861 per year in admissions and $ 43,448 per year in gift shop sales. Donations ranged from $ 8,000 to $ 58,000 per year. As long as it had state funding, the museum covered its costs and even had a small reserve.

It’s hard to say how much UT could improve on these numbers with new partnerships or another approach. Even before the onset of the pandemic, museums faced difficult economic challenges.

Consider the admirable effort of a nonprofit organization a few years ago to establish the Texas Museum of Science & Technology, a museum with a broad base in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. It opened in 2015 with a temporary location in Cedar Park, where my kids and I saw a traveling exhibit of ancient Egyptian artifacts and the outlines of constellations inside a small mobile planetarium. It closed in 2018 because the turnover did not cover the rent.

UT has many more resources to put the Texas Memorial Museum on a more sustainable path. And he should – not only because science museums improve students’ understanding of key concepts, expose people to STEM career paths, and stimulate lifelong learning. The museum deserves to be saved because it is a piece of the history of the state itself.

On the fourth floor of the Texas Memorial Museum is a photo of President Franklin Roosevelt breaking ground for the museum in 1936 during a campaign whistle in Austin. Launched with massive investments from state and federal governments, the museum was as much about celebrating Texas’ centennial as it was providing jobs during the Great Depression. A few Ice Age fossils shown on the first floor, a giant land sloth and a rock-sized armadillo known as Glyptodont, were unearthed by the Works Progress Administration crews building roads near Corpus Christi.

Dimetrodons were the greatest land predators of their time, millions of years before the arrival of dinosaurs.  Some of the best Dimetrodon fossils have been found in Texas.

The museum’s mascot may well be the Dimetrodon, the creature with a giant bony veil down its back, the king of land predators millions of years before the dinosaurs arrived. Some of the best Dimetrodon fossils were unearthed a century ago in Texas and then taken to museums in Chicago and Cambridge, Massachusetts, as there was no research museum in Texas to house them.

This indignation could not bear.

The Texas Memorial Museum was founded to ensure that people could study the state’s rich natural history, the Dimetrodons and all, without leaving the borders of Texas.

It was then a matter of state pride. And keeping the museum strong should be a matter of state pride now.

Grumet is the columnist for Statesman’s Metro. his chronicle, ATX in context, contains his opinions. Share yours via email at [email protected] or via Twitter at @bgrumet.

If you are going to

The Texas Memorial Museum is located at 2400 Trinity St. on the University of Texas campus. Hours are 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday. Admission is $ 7 for adults, $ 5 for children 12 and under, and free for students and UT employees with ID. There are special rates for groups of tourists. For information, visit http://tmm.utexas.edu.

Elliott Peters, 4, right, and Parker Peters, 2, create dinosaur-themed ornaments at the Texas Memorial Museum on Friday.

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