Texas Natural Science Center

Photo Credit: Charlotte Carpenter | Daily Texan Staff

Six months after having its budget gutted, the Texas Memorial Museum is improving its financial situation, and attendance is slowly rising.

In September 2014, the University pulled funding for the Texas Natural Science Center, which included the Texas Memorial Museum, as part of a $600,000 budget cut. The center was essentially dismantled, leaving the Museum entirely financially independent, according to Edward Theriot, integrative biology professor and museum director.  

Today, the museum’s doors remain open as a result of outside funding, community outreach efforts and policy changes and despite a professional staff that’s less than half the size it was last year.

“We survived a massive budget cut, but we are not closed,” said Pamela Owen, associate director of the museum.

In addition to the museum, the Texas Natural Science Center also owned extensive paleontology and biology collections. As a result of the budget cut, the Jackson School of Geosciences and the Department of Integrative Biology took over the respective collections.

Despite the shift in ownership, specimens from the transferred collections are still on display at the museum. Owen said the exhibitions on display at the museum were not affected by the cuts.

“We still showcase specimens from those collections, so we’re the caretakers of them on exhibit,” Owen said.

Theriot said attendance and revenue were below projections for the first two months after the budget cut.

“As we went into the year, we were consistently low,” Theriot said. “It was concerning us, and what became apparent … was that people thought we were entirely closed.”

In the past several months, attendance has risen, although it’s still lower than what the staff had projected, Theriot said.

The museum is now running off $85,000 in private donations, a little over $108,000 in state funding and revenue from admissions and the museum’s gift shop.

“Fiscally this year, we are in good shape,” Theriot said.

The 84th Texas Legislature’s proposed House and Senate budgets would renew the state’s over $108,000 in funding for the 2016 and 2017 fiscal years.

Until September, the museum was free to the public. Although admission is still free to students and faculty with a valid University ID, the museum now charges members of the public a general admission fee of $3–$4, depending on age, to account for the budget cuts. The museum has made $42,000 in ticket sales since September, Owen said.

The museum also received $75,000 in private donations from the Stillwater Foundation, which has been used to host free special events. Museum senior administrative associate Laura Naski Keffer said the events, such as National Fossil Day and Texas Wildlife Day, have helped spread the word about the museum.

“It kept us doing things we did before the massive cut,” Naski Keffer said. “It’s really nice to provide free events. Here we are: We switched to an admissions policy, but we can still figure out a way to make free events to the public.”

The museum staff was downsized to from eleven full-time employees to four, as well as a part-time IT staff member and six work-study students. Since the cuts, Theriot works part time as the director and full time as a University professor.

Theriot said staff members who were let go as a result of the cut were given ample time to find other jobs. Other staff members retired.

“The hardest thing was telling the staff, frankly,” Theriot said. “The slightly silver lining in all of this is that we were told this was going to happen well in advance.”

The Texas Memorial Museum is the main exhibit hall of the Texas Natural Sciences Center. Faculty Council met Feb. 17 to addressed concerns regarding new ways to fund the museum.

Photo Credit: Zoe Davis | Daily Texan Staff

A recent budget cutting decision by the College of Natural Sciences would not only impact the budget of the Texas Memorial Museum but are instead targeted at the entire Texas Natural Science Center, which the museum is a part of.

According to its website, the Center works to create awareness and appreciation of biological diversity, especially in Texas. In addition to the museum, the Center oversees both vertebrate and non-vertebrate paleontology labs, as well as the Texas Natural History Collections. 

Edward Theriot, integrative biology professor and director of the Texas Memorial Museum, said the Center will be organized out of existence starting next fall. 

Theriot said different parts of the Center’s collection have already started moving to other colleges, including the paleontological collection, which moved to the Jackson School of Geosciences last fall. 

“What I have been told about the collections is as of the last discussion I had with [Linda Hicke, dean of the College of Natural Sciences], there was no plan at this time to cut the
operational funding for the collections,” Theriot said. “Technical, web and administrative support will become the responsibility of existing resources at the other entities.” 

Theriot said, as of right now, more than $600,000 will be cut from the Center’s budget starting next semester. Theriot said the center had an operational budget of over $1 million before the paleontological collection was moved. 

At the Faculty Council meeting last week, a resolution was passed that encourages the museum to find independent funding for its community outreach programs. 

William Beckner, mathematics professor and chair-elect of the Faculty Council, worked with the Faculty Council executive council to write the resolution. He said they wrote the resolution after Mona Medhy, cell and molecular biology associate professor, emailed him and asked Faculty Council to consider the museum’s situation.

Beckner said the goal of the resolution was to encourage the museum to look elsewhere for funding. 

“I recognize the financial constraints on the University’s operating budget,” Beckner said. “The goal was to support the museum but not to tell the University how to fund it.”

Medhy said she reached out to Beckner in order to promote discussion about potential solutions to the museum’s position. 

“My point was: Is there any way to help this museum financially, at least in the short term?” Medhy said. “I felt that it was important for our faculty, or anybody who is interested in this topic, to see what the University could provide besides relying simply on the College of Natural Sciences.”

Theriot said he appreciates support from the faculty, but the resolution did not change the museum’s financial situation. 

“Honestly, it puzzles me,” Theriot said. “It doesn’t mean anything to us because that’s what we’ve been working toward since October, when [Hicke] told me that we were being cut. My life and the museum’s life was the same the day before the Faculty Council resolution and the same the day after. It has had no effect whatsoever.”

Theriot said he is currently working on developing a business model to establish a new source of revenue for the museum. He said the museum’s general infrastructure will have to be adjusted to remain fiscally solvent.

“I think the museum and what it does and the services it provides are going to have to be rethought from the bottom up in order to get a good grasp on what sort of recurring funding we’ll have, which should come from admissions,” Theriot said. “The first thing we need to do is get it off of life support and get through this admissions phase, [and] then see where we can go from there.”

Energy company BP donated $40,000 to UT in an effort to help preserve the Glen Rose dinosaur tracks housed outside the Texas Memorial Museum. The tracks, which are currently deteriorating because of varying moisture levels, may only have months left to be preserved.

Photo Credit: Trent Lesikar | Daily Texan Staff

Efforts to save the Glen Rose dinosaur tracks from extinction and to preserve them for generations to come are in the works because of the Texas Natural Science Center and outside donors.

The British Petroleum oil and gas company donated $40,000 to the Help Save the Tracks campaign, said Susan Romberg, spokeswoman for the Texas Natural Science Center. The center’s goal is to raise $1 million for the preservation of the dinosaur tracks.

The tracks were discovered in 1938 near Glen Rose by the Paluxy River in northern Texas, said Ed Theriot, director of the Texas Memorial Museum and professor in the College of Natural Sciences. He said some of the tracks were moved to a small building located next to the Texas Memorial Museum on the UT campus, while some of them were moved to the American Museum of Natural History.

“Scientists think that the tracks show two dinosaurs — one large dinosaur who is ‘stalking’ a smaller dinosaur,” Romberg said. “It’s beyond way cool. These are actually the first documented track findings of a theropod.”

The campaign has received many small individual donations online as well as from other organizations, such as Tokyo Electron America, Romberg said.

There is no exact cutoff for how long the preservation project could be pushed on, Theriot said.

“The basic issue is that where they are, they are exposed to extreme temperature and humidity shifts,” Theriot said. “They were basically laid on the ground on concrete, but even concrete is porous to moisture. There are various salts in the rock that cause the rock to deteriorate, and eventually, the rock will crumble.”

Theriot said reparations should be done sooner rather than later.

“The longer they sit there, the more detail they will lose,” Theriot said. “They’ve been here for about 60 years, and while they’re not going to crumble tomorrow, I don’t see them lasting another 60.”

UT has already invested $250,000 in the project for an assessment of the tracks, Romberg said. She said this includes a plan by a stone conservation company to do all the work necessary to treat the tracks and place them inside an environmentally controlled building.

“Though $40,000 is not a sufficient amount or may not seem like a lot of money, it will get the ball rolling for corporate funding to get started in a nice way,” Romberg said. “Our ultimate goal is to raise another $700,000.”

The dinosaur tracks will be removed from their current building outside the Texas Memorial Museum and moved to their own environmentally safe exhibit in the museum.

“The tracks will be chemically stabilized and treated in such a way that stabilizes any current damage,” Theriot said. “We want to bring them inside the museum and create a nice exhibit and put them in a sit where there is less humidity and temperature fluctuation.”

Health sciences sophomore Jessica Weldon, who loves learning about dinosaurs, said taking care of the tracks is a necessary part of preserving historical sites associated with UT.

“Growing up, dinosaurs and fossils fascinated me, and one of my favorite memories is of going to see the Glen Rose tracks with my dad,” Weldon said. “I’m glad a new generation of aspiring paleontologists will get to enjoy these tracks in a more suitable environment.”

“Family Fossil Fun Day” at the Texas Memorial Museum offered a look at a dinosaur discovered by a UT professor and hands-on activities for children.

The Texas Natural Science Center hosted the 10th annual event Sunday.

Children’s activities included arts and crafts, games and stations where they learned about fossil identification and dinosaurs.

“Kids are so excited about dinosaurs in particular and fossils in general, and it’s a way to get them excited about our research and our collections,” said Christina Cid, education director at the Texas Memorial Museum.

The new museum exhibit featured Sarahsaurus aurifontanalis, a dinosaur discovered in 1997 by Timothy Rowe, director of the center’s vertebrate paleontology lab and geological sciences professor.

In a presentation, Rowe discussed how he discovered the 180-million-year-old dinosaur fossil in northern Arizona, outlining the pre-planning, the actual expedition and his interest in the Jurassic period.

“History tells us a lot of what’s going on today, and it will eventually forecast the future and that’s why we do paleontology,” Rowe said. “You want to be able to see what’s coming next.”

After three years of excavation and 11 years of separating the rock from the fossil, Rowe’s discovery is on display for a limited time until Feb. 12, 2012.

Other presentations included “Mammoths on the Move,” where the public learned about mammoths and their relatives from the last ice age, and “Meet a Preparator,” which demonstrated how fossils are made ready for exhibition and research.

Pamela Owen, senior paleontology educator for the center, led the “Mammoths on the Move” presentation and talked about the importance of the exhibits and presentations to the Texas public.

“[The event] helps people get a better feeling for the great fossil resources we have here in Texas and an understanding of the history and evolution of life,” Owen said. “It’s a great learning experience and it’s in a really fun way, so it’s not like you’re sitting in a classroom.”

Printed on October 10, 2011: Texas Memorial Museum debuts about fossil on family day

The Texas Natural Science Center will restore a 112-million-year-old deteriorating dinosaur tracks fossil before moving it to the Texas Memorial Museum.

The tracks, which have been at UT since 1941, are currently on a slab of mortar inside of a non-climate controlled building made specifically for the tracks.

The sauropod tracks in the slab are important because they are the standard to which other similar tracks are scientifically compared, said Pamela Owen, senior paleontology educator at the Texas Memorial Museum.

“The track slab will be treated and then placed in the Hall of Geology and Paleontology in the Texas Memorial Museum, which is climate controlled,” Owen said. “The new exhibit will also improve public viewing of the tracks.”

The slab must be disassembled and taken out the front of the building. It will then be taken for treatment and conservation before being brought into the museum. The slab is extremely heavy and must be handled with great care, Owen said.

Texas Memorial Museum director Ed Theriot said the conservation work should take 12 to 24 months.

“There certainly has been a lot of deterioration,” Theriot said. “Particularly, there has been a loss of surface detail. There has been some chemical decomposition of the stone. The whole thing is not turning to dust — it’s still quite solid — but with time, stones under certain conditions can undergo chemical deterioration.”

The museum has not yet raised the $1 million it requires to move the tracks.

“So far the University has contributed roughly $200,000 toward this conservation study,” Theriot said. “Unfortunately, we began this campaign just about the time that the economic downturn began and we’ve had to proceed slowly. It’s not a simple matter to raise a million dollars under any circumstances.”

Christina Cid, the director of education at the Texas Memorial Museum, said the dinosaur tracks will help with teacher training and education for kids who can learn what dinosaur tracks say about animal behavior.

“The tracks will give us increased opportunities for programming,” Cid said. “I think it will also give visitors renewed interest in coming to the museum.”

She said the current location does not provide visitors with optimal viewing.

“The tracks are hard to see where they’re currently located,” Cid said. “Getting them inside, especially the way we are planning to display them, will give people the opportunity to see them in a whole different way. It will be an exciting time to bring additional visitors into the museum.”

Scientists from three archeological and history centers helped between 400 and 500 people identify artifacts for UT’s biannual Identification Day on Sunday.

The experts from Texas Natural Science Center’s Non-vertebrate Paleontology Lab, Vertebrate Paleontology Lab and Texas Natural History Collections looked at natural and archaeological materials and identified them for people for free. Most participants brought in arrowheads and other pieces of limestone.

“Texas Natural Science Center is committed to providing public awareness and understanding of Texas’ natural history,” said Pamela Owen, senior paleontology educator at the Texas Memorial Museum. “We all hope to continue to inspire people of all ages to be interested in the natural world. Identification Day is also a great way to encourage children to get outside, explore and get excited about science.”

Owen said it is very common for people in Texas to find fossils.

“Central Texas is covered by extensive beds of Cretaceous limestone, which contain the remains of sea creatures that were living between 120 to 65 million years ago,” Owen said. “We also have visitors that find fossils in other parts of the state, such as along the Gulf Coast or in West Texas.”

The event is both fun and educational, Owen said.

“It is a joy to see someone get excited about a fossil find, to realize they hold the remains of something that lived thousands or millions of years ago,” Owen said. “It is exciting to see what visitors will bring — there is usually a surprise or two — I really enjoy helping people figure out what they have found, for many have a pretty good idea, but some are completely at a loss as to what they have. There is great pleasure in solving ‘little mysteries.’”

Becky Kurka and her daughter Nicole attended the event and brought along a few potential artifacts for identification.

“When I came to school here years ago, I bought a little silver aluminum trailer,” Kurka said. “I was cleaning the cabinets in it with a broom, and I hit these things that felt like rocks, and this stone ax was one of them.”

The trailer she purchased had been sold in New Mexico, Arizona and Utah. The scientist hypothesized the stone ax is from the Southwest and is approximately 550,000 years old.

Jessica Rosales, the ichthyology collection manager at the Texas Natural Science Center, has been working at the event for about 10 years and said it is great having so many experts from different fields at one event.

“For people who have a mammal bone or a fossil or a really cool rock or something, it’s really exciting for them because they get it identified and you can be pretty certain that identification is going to be correct,” said Rosales, who was showing people common freshwater fish found around central Texas.