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The New Witte in San Antonio

The venerable Witte Museum has been a San Antonio institution since 1926, but not even the most forward thinking founder, administrator, researcher or even museum-goer could have possibly envisioned what the New Witte is like today. 

By Julie Catalano :: Photography courtesy of The Witte Museum

After the completion of a $100 million project involving more than 170,000 square feet that can only be described as transformational, the original facade of the 91-year-old mainstay on Broadway Street is gone, replaced by a gorgeous Adventure Walk featuring fossils and native plants leading to the new Susan Naylor Center.

There, the H-E-B Lantern — a “glass box” that serves as the entry — contains the first, but not the last, OMG moment, as guests are greeted by the Nora and Steve Burkhart life-sized Quetzalcoatlus sculpture (“Quetzy” for short), one of the largest known prehistoric flying animals. In the background, realistic pterosaur images soar through the digital sky. The comparisons to a Jurassic Park-like vibe are inevitable.

“People walk in and are just awestruck,” says Witte president and CEO Marise McDermott, referring to the Naylor Family Dinosaur Gallery. “It’s so much bigger than people imagine.”

And that is just the beginning.

Because it is so overwhelming, and the exhibits cover so much time and space in the history of Texas, they are organized into what they call Texas Deep Time, divided into what the state looked like millions of years ago when dinosaurs roamed, thousands of years ago when prehistoric people lived, and hundreds of years ago when the more familiar cattle kings, cowboys and vaqueros shaped the Texas landscape.

Highlights include full-size dinosaur cast skeletons such as the 39-foot Acrocanthosaurus and the 40-foot Tyrannosaurus Rex; and molded dinosaur footprints recreated from those found at nearby Government Canyon Natural State Area. “Everybody loves dinosaurs,” says McDermott, “and we’ve learned so many new things about them since when we were young. There are a lot of ‘aha’ moments in the Naylor Family Dinosaur Gallery.”

Moving forward in time, the McLean Family Texas Wild Gallery will look somewhat familiar to longtime Witte fans, where the taxidermy dioramas of old (remember the bobcat?) have a new home in a state-of-the-art high-tech space and immersive galleries featuring flora and fauna from all the regions of the state. It also contains a particularly fun surprise — an animated sky that goes through a day in Texas, with a storm that occurs every 15 minutes and then quickly goes away. Just like Texas.

George Strait fans have a special treat in store with his narration in the Mary West and Richard Traylor Sounds of South Texas, featuring the beautiful sounds of animals and birds from morning ‘til night.

The Kittie West Nelson Ferguson People of the Pecos Gallery is both fascinating and poignant, offering a unique look at how a prehistoric people  lived, hunted, cooked and socialized, right down to a display that shows a domesticated dog in their midst.

Visitors of all ages can participate in the hands-on labs that accompany every gallery, where they can “dig” for dinosaur “bones,” try out the tools of ancient peoples, and explore the rock art of the Lower Pecos Canyonlands in the Lifeways and Nancy Smith Hurd Rock Art Labs, to name a few. Not to be missed: The Gates Mineral Company Orientation Theater that takes viewers through the entire Witte experience through the Texas Deep Time narrative, from prehistoric to contemporary.

Other must-sees: The new gift shop, twice as big as the old one, and featuring display furniture made from the wood of trees that had to be taken down during the reconstruction (they did plant 60 additional trees). And because the New Witte is now an all-day experience, they now have a Marketplace where guests can grab a quick lunch from an assortment of food, snacks and beverages.

The outside is just as wonderful as the inside, featuring six major gardens and riverside landscapes including the Texas Wild Garden, the Science Garden, Tuleta Garden, Aqueduct Plaza and entry gardens at the Feik Family Orientation Pavilion and the Tex Elliott Family South Texas Heritage Entry Court.

These newly renovated and expanded spaces join the existing impressive — and in some cases also renovated and expanded — spaces such as the Robert J. and Helen C. Kleberg South Texas Heritage Center, the H-E-B Body Adventure and the B. Naylor Morton Research and Collections Center.

McDermott is especially excited about the additional staff that came to the table to make the New Witte what it is. “We have a lot of new curators and educators,” she says, including a paleontologist, geologist, archeologist, anthropologist, naturalist, even a couple with backgrounds as Disney Imagineers. Exhibition designer Gallagher & Associates worked with Lake Flato Architects on the new design.”

Perhaps the most exciting is that for the first time, the Witte will be able to host two major exhibitions at once. “Before we could only have one at a time,” says McDermott. This summer, both Wild Weather and Whales: Giants of the Deep will run from May 27 to September 4, 2017. Wild Weather explores how scientists are working to improve severe weather forecasting to lessen the impact on communities and lives. Whales: Giants of the Deep brings the world of whales to life, including the surprising fact that there are more than 25 species of whales living in the Gulf of Mexico.

So what’s next for the Witte? “Right now, we’re just enjoying having people experience the New Witte,” says McDermott. “So many people who have come since the opening have enjoyed all the themes that people are used to seeing at the Witte, but in 174,000 square feet of change. It’s exactly what people were waiting for.”

For more information, www.wittemuseum.org.