Baylor University

Bye-bye, Basement

Nov. 2, 2003

By Julie Carlson


The scaffolding is gone, the shrubs have been planted and Mayborn Museum Complex director Ellie Caston (shown below) has hung up her hard hat, but the real work of building a world-class museum at Baylor has just begun.

"In some ways we are just beginning the journey," Dr. Caston said. "The complexity of the moves from the Strecker Museum and the Ollie Mae Moen Discovery Center and the installation of the new exhibits take time."

Dr. Ellie Caston.

Strecker Museum can trace its beginnings to 1893, making it the oldest natural history museum in Texas. The Museum occupied a number of homes across the Baylor campus before moving to the basement of the Sid Richardson Science Building when it opened in 1967.

Movin' on up

Strecker officially closed its Sid Richardson doors in September 2003 and began moving its extensive collections out of the basement in October. But with an accumulation that stretches back decades, moving Strecker is akin to cleaning out Grandma's attic.

The first step in clearing out the basement museum was emptying the cases filled with various collections. In the age of hands-on learning, that kind of static display where a museum visitor looks at curiosities (rocks, bugs, arrowheads) is no longer in vogue. The items were unloaded, checked against a master catalog and carefully packed. The cases were donated to local schools and other Baylor departments.

"Every time we moved something we would find more items stored behind it," Dr. Caston said. "We thought we had a lot to move and then we discovered we had more than a lot."

strecker tree.With the smaller artifacts and specimens stored and the cases removed, work could begin in relocating some of the giant pieces housed in the museum. Employees from Southwest Museum Services, a Houston-based company that designs museum exhibits, were on hand to disassemble (if needed) and move such items as the whale skull, giant turtle and the tree slice that weighs 1,600 pounds.

"Our biggest challenge is that we have to move out of a basement," Caston said. "There is only one small elevator that is not easily accessed. So right off the bat, you are talking about moving lots of large things, like the whale skull, up stairs."

Many of these items returned with the designers to Houston and after some preparation will return to the new museum. Southwest Museum Services is building everything from new cases to backdrops to the walk-in cave for the Harry and Anna Jeanes Discovery Center.

Spring cleaning

However, with the Strecker space cleared, tens of thousands of objects remain stored in the basement corridor of the Sid Richardson building or in the O'Grady Warehouse. While there is good storage in the new building, Dr. Caston said some of the collection has been transferred to other educational institutions.

"A lot of our items were early scientific collections that, perhaps, a Baylor professor collected years ago. We were the University museum, so we were the repository for these things," she said. "Then after 100 years of doing this, the problem of storage became overwhelming. The modern trend is to define a museum's mission and that defines the scope of what you collect. For us, we are telling the story of Central Texas.

"So there are many items that no longer fit our mission. For instance, we transferred our marine fish collection to Texas A&M because they have an active research program on that. They will find a good use for those specimens, whereas for us those items would just sit in storage."

Ollie Mae Moen Center's move

Another component of the Mayborn Museum Complex is Baylor's "children's museum," the Ollie Mae Moen Discovery Center, now in a temporary location in downtown Waco. After the Center shuts its doors to the public on Dec. 23, employees will spend the months of January and February clearing out items from the downtown space for the much anticipated move to create the Children's World portion of the Jeanes Discovery Center.

"For us, the move is a bit easier than Strecker's move," said Jill Barrow, director of education for the Mayborn Complex. "We just made a move two and a half years ago and we did a lot of cleaning out then. We just don't have as much volume."

Historic Village programs

Some items like the Center's teepee and playhouse will be donated to local schools or museums, but its collection of living small animals and insects will have a temporary home at the Gov. Bill and Vara Daniel Historic Village.

"They already have their little suitcases packed," Dr. Caston joked about the rabbits, guinea pig and hermit crab that will make the move. The animals will be used in the Center's popular vertebrate and invertebrate programs, which will take place during March and April at the Village.

"The Village will be hopping this spring," Barrow said. "We don't want to lose our momentum by closing entirely, so we will continue the regular Village programs and add the animal programs."

The Historic Village will continue as a vital component of the Mayborn Complex.

"We will have an indoor exhibit and the Village will serve as our outdoor exhibit," Dr. Caston said. "The Village is an integral part of the storyline that we will tell."

New offerings for visitors

When the Jeanes Discovery Center opens to the public in May 2004, Dr. Caston said its offerings will appeal to both young and old, from a walk-in cave and ever-changing exploration stations to The Children's World with its TV weather and pioneer rooms.

"There has been this misconception that half the museum is for adults and half is for children, but actually the entire building is for families," Dr. Caston said. "We want a family to come in and find activities that will occupy everyone and activities that can be done together as a family. There are many things for children in the permanent exhibit area, and you don't have to be a kid to enjoy Children's World."

The greatest challenge might be prying adults away from The Children's World. While its programming content mirrors the content from the Ollie Mae Moen Discovery Center, the new exhibits will feature more sophisticated technology and visual effects.

This means that when guests visit the health room, they will walk through a giant replica of the human heart and play with "Stuffy," a 7-foot-tall, soft sculpture doll whose insides can be removed. While these exhibits are permanent, other activities offered at exploration stations will change periodically to encourage repeat visits.

Barrow stressed that the sophistication of the new exhibits should not intimidate anyone.

"We will be leaving the homemade aspect, but we will not lose the homey feel, the warm feelings that families get when they come to Strecker or Ollie Mae Moen," she said. "Everything will be new except for the family friendliness. We will welcome everyone with open arms."

Looking for an older article? Visit our archives.