Laura Lott is the President and CEO of the American Alliance of Museums.
Have you heard about The New Witte?
When you take the bold step of investing nearly $100 million in entirely reinventing a 90-year old beloved institution called The Witte Museum over a decade, you call the result “The New Witte.”
Earlier this month, I got to experience The New Witte in San Antonio, Texas. Boy, was I impressed! And I’m not alone. The Museum has welcomed over 90,000 visitors in its first month. I wish I had brought my daughter…though, on the other hand, getting her to leave would have been a challenge.
Situated on ten park-like acres, right on the famously meandering San Antonio River, The Witte Museum is an architecturally impressive, modern, world-class facility – or, rather, facilities, with 175,000 square feet of exhibit space. In addition to the main museum building with its Great Hall, dinosaur exhibits and beloved dioramas, the Witte complex includes the South Texas Heritage Center displaying works by Texas artists, a new Research & Collections Center to house its 300,000 artifacts – with really cool visible storage, the highly interactive H-E-B Body Adventure “Treehouse,” and numerous outdoor venues including an amphitheater and gardens. Views from inside the buildings thoughtfully take into account the museum’s focus on the natural environment, and the museum integrated the Mission Espada Aqueduct into its new architecture. It’s just an awe-inspiring, beautiful environment in which to spend a day.
With a smart focus on “Texas Deep Time,” the museum explores Texas from millions of years ago (with Texas dinosaurs) to thousands of years ago (prehistoric people of the Lower Pecos) to hundreds of years of South Texas history and natural history, up to the present day. While I was there, the museum was hosting its first traveling exhibition, Above and Beyond – a highly engaging and technology-rich exhibition showcasing 100 years of aviation history (with many ties to the San Antonio area).
Of all the amazing accomplishments of The Witte Museum’s transformation, I was most impressed by how the museum has really leveraged its partnerships and, as such, has brought the community in San Antonio together.
The visitorship of the museum mirrors San Antonio metro area demographics of 49% Hispanic and 43% White Non-Hispanic. Museum leadership spent 18 months working with multiple parts of the diverse community of San Antonio to hash through “Guiding Principles” it would follow to ensure multiple narratives are appropriately represented in the new museum’s exhibitions.
One hundred percent of San Antonio school children visit The Witte. I understand they call it “My Witte.” It’s one of those places that everyone in the community remembers going to as a child – and relishes the opportunity to take their children and grandchildren. Forget the museum’s $25 million annual economic impact, it’s just part of the fabric of the city.
The city’s museum directors are thoughtful about how they can complement, rather than compete with, each other. The Witte provided some of its early childhood exhibits to the two-year-old children’s museum, the DoSeum, down the street. While a new Science and Technology Center works to identify its niche. The Witte has lent several artifacts to the San Antonio Missions for use in their in situ exhibitions – and was integral to the Missions becoming Texas’ first World Heritage Site. The planetarium helped to create a September night sky from 300 years ago to include in the Witte’s People of the Pecos Gallery.
San Antonio has a thriving health industry – many of those competitors came together to fund parts of the Museum’s HEB Body Adventure, designed in part to combat the city’s obesity problem. The university sends medical students to work in the Witte’s technology-rich health exhibits. The students practice engaging with the public, critical for a career in medicine. And the museum gains technical knowledge from the students.
Even the Culinary Institute of America – San Antonio, which focuses on Latin cuisine, designed and built the museum’s culinary kitchen which provides cooking demonstrations, “date night” food/wine pairings and other events in this growing foodie town.
The Witte Museum sees itself as “a catalyst for creating San Antonio as a City on the Rise, Shaping the Future of Texas.” It is part of major consortium efforts to remake the city of San Antonio for its 300th anniversary next year. And Visit San Antonio is thrilled to have this gem of an institution in the city.
Next up in San Antonio? A $500 million investment over five years to revitalize the entire “Broadway Cultural Corridor” benefitting not only the Witte, but also the Zoo, Botanical Gardens, San Antonio Museum of Art, DoSeum Children’s Museum and McNay Art Museum. And an ambitious much-needed $400 million, seven-year reinvention of San Antonio’s most famous site, The Alamo.