As Witte Museum paleontology and geology curator Thomas Adams prepared to hunt down the fossils of an ancient crocodile species in North Texas last week, he received some good news.

The Institute of Museum and Library Services announced a $250,000 grant to the Witte as part of the institute’s Museums for America program, to promote collections stewardship and public access.

Adams described the grant as both an honor and a relief, in that the museum can now move forward with plans to properly archive and house its collection of 320,000 ancient specimens and artifacts.

“The first thing in my mind is, ‘Great! I can go get more fossils and have a place to put them,” Adams said, noting that by Tuesday he would be searching for further fossils from a mosasaur recently discovered on a private ranch.

Adams’ work on the Cretaceous period animal will add to research on the 80 million-year-old creature, which when first discovered in 1764 helped convince scientists that extinction was possible, and that the Earth was populated by strange species long before Biblical times.

In what is referred to at the Witte as “Texas Deep Time,” the aquatic mosasaur is evidence that much of the state was once covered by an inland sea.

“What we see today is not how Texas has always appeared; it’s been a very changing geography,” Adams said. “Every time the geography changes, the animals and the plants change as well, so the fossil record in Texas gives us a really good picture of how life adjusts to changes through time.”

Looking back through time, he said, we can also learn more about what to expect in the future.

“The reason Texas is under an ocean 80 million years ago is because we had rising sea levels globally,” he said. “That might actually [give us] a pertinent understanding to what’s going to happen in the near future as sea levels rise.”

Much more recent changes in the Witte Museum’s history reveal how much behind-the-scenes work goes into the making of its exhibits, such as the Naylor Family Dinosaur Gallery and the rock walls of the Valero Great Hall that show how layers of rock visibly “tell the story” of Texas geology, Adams said.

Witte President and CEO Marise McDermott said that before remodeling in 2017, the great entrance hall was once the part of the museum where the paleontology and geology collections were stored.

Now, with the substantial funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the Witte’s offsite collections facility will be remodeled to accommodate its ever-growing collections, provide laboratory space for conservation, and help foster the research that will inform future exhibits.

Even with the museum’s long history, having opened in 1926, McDermott described its growing paleontology and geology department as “new and exciting, and this is going to take it to a whole new level.”

Nicholas Frank

Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with an indie rock...