Dr. Thomas Adams discusses the history of the woolly mammoth. Photo by Scott Ball.
Witte Museum Curator of Paleontology Thomas Adams discusses the history of the woolly mammoth. Photo by Scott Ball.

Don’t let the construction zone fool you, The Witte Museum is open and expecting a hot summer with big crowds coming to cool off in the Ice Age.

“Discover the Ice Age,” a touring exhibit, will open to the public on Saturday and stay at the Witte until Sept. 7. The exhibit promises visitors the chance to experience life as it was 2.5 million years ago, complete with life-sized animatronic models of animals with scientifically accurate movements, coloration, sounds, and fur.

The animal models include a wooly mammoth, saber-toothed cat, a dire wolf and a giant flightless “terror bird” that roamed land that would become Texas.

There’s also a full sized adult mammoth skeleton, wooly mammoth fur, casts and fossils, including a mammoth’s tusk that visitors may touch.

“It’s rare that you get to touch any fossil in a museum,” said Witte Museum Curator of Paleontology Thomas Adams.

Dr. Thomas Adams speaks about fossils in which guests can touch. Photo by Scott Ball.
Visitors will be able to touch a mammoth tusk at the Witte during the “Discover the Ice Age” exhibit. Photo by Scott Ball.

The exhibit timeline outlines the beginning of the Neogene Period, when the woolly mammoth, mastodon and Titanis – the aforementioned carnivorous bird – first appeared. The timeline ends at about 7,000 years ago, about the time when isolated mammoth populations began dying off, leading to the extinction of the species.

Adams said evidence of mammoths and mastodons have been found around South Texas and elsewhere in the state.

“This animatronic, live, immersive experience of mammoths, mastodons, dire wolves, saber-toothed tigers is really everyone’s fantasy,” said Witte President and CEO Marise McDermott during an exhibit preview Friday. “Standing next to a mastodon and a mammoth at the same time, understanding the differences between the two, that’s the first time I’ve experienced that.”

The Irish elk (Megaloceros) at Discover the Ice Age. Photo by Scott Ball.
The Irish elk (Megaloceros) at “Discover the Ice Age.” Photo by Scott Ball.

“It’ll be a great way for families to come and chill out at the Witte,” said Adams, while gazing around the exhibit space, pointing out the animatronic models and sounds. “I imagine there will be many selfies taken in this exhibit hall.”

“Discover the Ice Age” comes to San Antonio courtesy of Atlanta company Imagine Exhibitions. The Witte will offer summer adventure camps, themed birthday parties and other hands-on activities related to “Discover the Ice Age.”

Children may get to sit at a table and do rubbings of animals featured in the exhibit. Other related programming will include Davis leading a special presentation and exhibit tour 2-4 p.m. on May 31 and a family day from noon to 4 p.m. on June 13.

McDermott said she thinks the Ice Age exhibit will not only further educate the public about prehistory, but also raise the Witte’s visibility at a time when two separate construction projects are taking place around the museum grounds.

One project has nothing to do with the Witte – the work on a San Antonio Water System (SAWS) sewer project on Avenue B at Tuleta Drive near the museum. Parts of Avenue B remain rough, as well as muddy thanks to the recent rains. It’s a project that McDermott said should have been completed years ago.

Parking is free and open to the public, but museum visitors must go on Funston Road/Brackenridge Drive west off Broadway and north onto Avenue B to access the parking garage. Avenue B is open and the sidewalk from the parking garage to the museum continues to be accessible.

Meanwhile, the museum’s second phase of capital campaign expansion and renovations is ongoing. Work crews have been carrying out duties on parts of the main museum building and other parts of the campus, and employees have moved around, but the Witte has not closed and will not close.

The H-E-B Lantern entrance and Quetzalcoatlus ("The Texas Pterosaurs") will welcome guests to the Valero Great Hall and Orientation Gallery at the new Witte Museum. Rendering courtesy of Lake/Flato Architects.
The H-E-B Lantern entrance and Quetzalcoatlus (“The Texas Pterosaurs”) will welcome guests to the Valero Great Hall and Orientation Gallery at the new Witte Museum. Rendering courtesy of Lake/Flato Architects.

When all is said and done, the Witte will have added advanced technology and more than 65,000 sq. ft. of new display space.

“To have the Witte construction and sewer construction go on at the same time, it has made things very difficult. Sometimes even our staff have had a hard time getting here, as well as our visitors,” McDermott said. “But we still have a record number of school children coming here this year.”

McDermott said it has been a goal of her and her colleagues to keep the museum open and visible despite all of construction and detours.

“As the people’s museum, we’ve been open since 1926. Our intent was not only to stay open but to continue with these great exhibitions,” McDermott explained. “We renovated this gallery first so that we could keep it open during the reconstruction.”

A backhoe guards the entrance of the Witte Museum. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
A backhoe guards the main entrance of the Witte Museum in February 2015. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

She added the first phase of master plan redevelopment at the Witte – the H-E-B Body Adventure, and the Robert J. and Helen C. Kleberg South Texas Heritage Center – was part of a larger strategy to keep visitors occupied as the second phase of construction got underway and continues. Major exhibits keep coming the Witte’s way, including the “Bodies Revealed” exhibit that opens Oct. 3.

“As we say, ‘still Witte, still amazing,’” she added.

According to McDermott, the master plan’s second phase of work remains on schedule. The Mays Family Center, a space for events, exhibitions, and educational displays and activities, will open next May. It will first host “Maya: Hidden Worlds Revealed,” the largest exhibition about the ancient Maya ever to be displayed in the United States.

Witte Museum members will get to look at the progress of construction first-hand during the third annual Witte Unlocked! Event slated for 6-8 p.m. July 29.

*Featured/top image: Witte Museum Curator of Paleontology Thomas Adams discusses the history of the woolly mammoth.  Photo by Scott Ball. 

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Edmond Ortiz

Edmond Ortiz, a lifelong San Antonian, is a freelance reporter/editor who has worked with the San Antonio Express-News and Prime Time Newspapers.