Pamela Owen

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 National Fossil Day website was closed Wednesday because of the shutdown, but the Texas Memorial Museum still celebrated the day with a workshop about fossils and fossil identification.

Pamela Owen, senior biodiversity educator at the museum, offered her expertise to visitors throughout the day. Owen said she frequently identifies fossils for people over email using photographs, but for National Fossil Day the museum provided a chance for people to show her their fossils.

“Have you ever watched ‘Antiques Roadshow’ on PBS?” Owens said. “We don’t appraise, we don’t say, ‘Oh, it’s worth this [amount],’ but it’s that personal interaction and getting the whole story like, ‘Where did you find it?’ There’s something really rewarding about doing identifications in person.”

Edward Theriot, Texas Natural Science Center director, said Central Texas is a great place to hunt for fossils, so many people use the museum as a resource for identifying what they find. 

“We have to provide an access to science for the public,” Theriot said. “The University has a role in service to that state. The museum is a component of that.”

He said the museum offers students and graduates the opportunity to reach out and connect with the public using the information they learn in the classroom. Approximately 400 local teachers use museum resources every year, Theriot said.

James Sagebiel is the collection manager for the vertebrate fossil collection, which is part of the Jackson School of Geosciences.

“The fossil collections split from the Texas Memorial Museum very recently,” Sagebiel said.

The fossil collection has always been owned by the geosciences school, but the school separated from the College of Natural Sciences in 2005. Administration is still working to separate the collection from the natural sciences college. The main fossil exhibits will remain in the Texas Memorial Museum.

Owen said the exhibit is an important part of education at every level because fossils help students understand history.

“We are celebrating fossils by educating people,” Owen said. “Unfortunately, because of the government shutdown, you can’t see the National Fossil Day website but you would see that it’s really becoming a big deal. It’s growing.”

Theriot said he believes the work of the museum and the fossil exhibit are key to understanding the past, present and future.

“The reason the past is important to me is that we understand what the future might be like,” Theriot said. “The present is not going to stay this way forever. The better we understand the past, the better we can predict the future.”

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.