A huge gasp, followed by a shout of “AWESOME!” That’s what you can expect to hear time and time again when you visit the “new” Witte Museum.
At least that was my six-year-old’s reaction, followed by, “This is amazing!!” A dinosaur connoisseur/aficionado/freak, his jaw dropped when we walked into the Witte’s new front entrance to be greeted by a life-sized skeleton of an Acrocanthosaurus, seemingly walking through the new Dinosaur Gallery, leaving footprints behind for us to observe.
Not familiar with the Acrocanthosaurus? He’s the guy you’ve been seeing on the Witte billboards around town. He started as an egg (I swore it was a potato, but my son guessed correctly), then grew into “Acro,” the Witte’s Acrocanthus, teasing us about what was to come.
Of course, you’ve probably driven by the Witte and seen the outdoor version of Acro as well—something my son has ooohed and ahhed at since it was first installed. Acro used to stomp his way around Texas, so like everything else that makes our state so grand, he’s right at home in the new Witte.
The Witte Museum has been around for 90 years, so hearing “new” associated with it sounds odd, but once the doors are thrown open this weekend, you’ll understand. The $100 million project created an additional 170,000 square feet of exhibition space. It’s new. It’s fabulous. It’s, well, AWESOME.
The museum that most of us know for that cute little circus elephant out front has been reconstructed, polished, and honestly, reinvented. (Don’t worry—the elephant is still there ready for photos, but he’s on Tuleta now, greeting you as you come to the Witte from the parking garage.) Seeing the gorgeous new buildings, it’s hard to believe that it’s the same museum and that we’re lucky enough to have it right here in San Antonio.
So what can you expect? The tagline for the Witte is “Where Nature, Science and Culture Meet.” Dinos, all things wild, all things history, fabulous artifacts, bits of South Texas history, a look at Texas as it was millions of years ago, a peek at the wilder side of our great state and everything that has influenced our culture—kids of all ages will find something to love at the Witte, and parents will, too.
The new front entrance, known as the H-E-B Lantern (you’ll get it as soon as you see it—it’s beautifully constructed to look like a lantern), draws you in, and once you’re inside, you feel like a kid again. A fabulous theater offers stunning images of Texas that made my son’s mouth drop (a pretty regular occurrence during our visit) and yes, there are dinosaur skeletons that rival anything we’ve seen at other museums. Seriously, if you’ve been to Houston’s Museum of Natural Science or the Perot Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas, the new Witte is of that caliber. (Can I get a “YES!” for another awesome addition to San Antonio????)
Back to the Lantern—look up and say hello to Quetzalcoatlus. Don’t call him a dinosaur, though, or my little dino dictator will scold you. Quetzie is a flying pterosaur with a 29-foot wingspan, and he’s flying with a ceiling of LED tiles simulating a Cretaceous period sky behind him. (Jaw drop!)
Once you’re in the Naylor Family Dinosaur Gallery, you’ll enjoy another Quetzalcoatlus—which you can also observe from a fabulous overlook on the second floor—as well as a great display of aquatic lizards and sea turtles, otherwise known as a Mososaurus and Archelons. (Please remember that no, I’m not a dino-savant. I’m just the mother of dino-nut and have been schooled by him. And yes, your sympathy is welcome.)
But the new Witte is more than just looking at displays. It’s interactive, with video screens and handsets giving you more information and hands-on labs where you can really dig into history. The Dinosaur Lab lets kids play paleontologist and measure themselves against the leg of the Alamosaurus, the largest land animal to walk across North America. (Of course, he was found in Texas. Everything is bigger here, right?!?)
In the Dinosaur Lab and throughout the new galleries, you’ll find fabulous pull-out drawers of artifacts. Each one is a treasure of information and, thanks to the drawer concept, you feel closer to these objects than you ever would if they were on a wall somewhere. My son loved having everything on his level and spent a lot of time studying the contents throughout the museum.
If what I’ve told you thus far isn’t enough to make you say WOW, I’ve got one for you: the Witte now has indoor thunderstorms every 15 minutes. Yes, you read that right. In the McLean Family Texas Wild Gallery, high-tech dioramas exploring the natural beauty of the Texas landscape bring four physical regions of the state to life while the gallery lighting simulates the passage of sunrise to night, complete with a thunderstorm. And yes, the sound was real enough that the thunder startled us.
Speaking of sounds, the Sounds of South Texas gallery is one you don’t want to miss. Featuring the natural sounds you’ll hear day and night in South Texas, the “show” is narrated by none other than George Strait. It’s a great spot to sit and listen and learn which sound goes with which animal on display.
The Texas Wild Gallery lets littles (and bigs) touch white-tailed deer hide, javelin fur, and more. With hundreds of animals on display, there’s so much to see and enjoy. My son loved finding some animals underground, and the creeks with fish are not to be missed.
We also spent some time in the Land Stewardship Lab, designed to teach us all about the importance of protecting the environment. Resembling a screen porch, the lab is built around the trunk of a Bald Cypress. We played with a 3D terrain map in wood pulp designed to show how water flows. By playing in the wood pulp and watching the color shift, you can see how water flows through the terrain you created.
Another lab that we can’t wait to see: the live animal lab. When we enjoyed our sneak peek, the animals weren’t there yet, but we did get to learn about food chains, animal tracks, and of course, scat, otherwise known as poop to giggling six-year-olds.
Heading upstairs, the second floor includes a fabulous overlook that, in addition to giving you an up close view of a Quetzalcoatlus, offers you the opportunity to look down on the entire dinosaur gallery and see outside through the museum’s fabulous windows.
The People of the Pecos Gallery gives you a glimpse of how people lived in Southwest Texas thousands of years ago. My son loved seeing the woven sandals and hand-carved utensils and weapons, as well as learning about rock art.
Thanks to the Rock Art Lab, kids can learn how ancient people created paint to make their art and try their hand at it. When we were there, the walls were filled with modern rock art, and kids were lining up to leave their own mark. (Museum staff explained that they can wipe it all clean so that visitors can make their art time and time again.) And in the Lifeways Lab, we tried basket weaving and learned how to use atlatl to throw our spears farther. The lab also features an outdoor area that gives you a great view of Broadway and the gorgeous new lawn of the Witte.
Honestly, I could go on and on. Bottom line: get to the Witte! In addition to new galleries, the current Above and Beyond exhibition is great for anyone who loves flight and the science behind it. My son had a blast designing his own plane, then taking it for a spin in the flight simulator, and learning about all types of planes, drones, and rockets.
And of course, H-E-B Body Adventure is always a great place to get some energy out. We also enjoy walking the Witte grounds. The renovation has incorporated the banks of the River and added an amphitheater that is a great place to watch the river flow. And the museum now features a snack bar so you can enjoy a bite while you explore.
The new Mays Family Center, where you’ll be able to enjoy the new Whales: Giants of the Deep! exhibit this summer, is absolutely beautiful, and the Robert J. and Helen C. Kleberg South Texas Heritage Center is another opportunity to immerse yourself in all things “us”—20,000 square feet of art, artifacts, and displays about South Texas.
So make a date with Acro, Quetzi, and their friends and the Witte ASAP. I promise you won’t be disappointed! Parking (free in the Brackenridge Park parking garage on Avenue B), hours and admission, and other details are available online at The Witte Museum.