There were dignitaries and donors; State, County, and City officials; curators, experts, and volunteers. Most importantly, there were children and toddlers uninhibited with excitement and wonder. All came together to dedicate the New Witte Saturday morning, and to explore its displays of nature, science, and culture.

The grand opening celebrated the completion of the new Susan Naylor Center, part of the $100 million transformation of the Witte Museum’s 90-year-old campus. Its indoor spaces encompass 10 acres and will allow the museum to host more civic events and quadruple the number of students who visit.

County Commissioner Tommy Calvert (Pct. 4), in remarks at the 9:30 a.m. dedication, mused that the ribbon-cutting banner could have read “Labor and Delivery.”

“Mama Marise [McDermott, president and CEO of the Witte Museum] is giving birth to a cultural rebirth in San Antonio,” he quipped.

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After acknowledgment of major donors by museum leaders Eddie Aldrete, Sam Dawson, Peggy Walker, and McDermott, and congratulations by Mayor Ivy Taylor, Councilman Alan Warrick (D2), and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, the group cut a Witte Museum banner while a crowd of VIPs and families pounded African drums. Through the front doors issued a roaring Tyrannosaurus Rex.

Within minutes, the light-filled exhibit halls swarmed with people gazing up and around. Children gleefully engaged with displays; the more sedentary sat on benches and watched a stunning new film about Texas heritage.

“Try to keep the sand in the box, kids,” a visitor associate told half a dozen little ones brushing sand from the “remains” of a dromaeosaurus in a large sand box.

“We went out and bought a bunch of Dustbusters,” McDermott chuckled.

Thomas Adams, the Witte’s curator of paleontology and geology, pointed to the actual skeleton of the ancient bird and explained that new technology indicates the color of the species’ feathers, which are as large as palm fronds.

In the McLean Family Texas Wild Gallery, a toddler stretching her head to find where the loud cricket sounds were coming from, nearly fell over. The sounds of thunderstorms, chirping birds, and crickets are actual natural sounds recorded when the Big Texas Sky ceiling was filmed in Big Bend, from dawn to night, explained Helen Holdsworth, curator of Texas Wild.

“We wanted to make an immersive experience,” she said. “Hopefully this all will inspire people to get outside and enjoy nature and hopefully become good stewards.”

The hands-on lab, featuring an interactive digital topographic map, is screened in on three sides – a good start.

Under Texas Wild’s authentic sky, a little visitor peered at a turtle under a pond at a child’s eye level, part of a Rio Grande Valley exhibit, then grabbed her father to look with her.

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One of the creepier displays of nature is espied through three small windows in a rock wall, bringing the viewer inside the Bracken Bat Cave just north of San Antonio. Layers of digital bats teem on the other wall or fly out of the cave’s mouth.

Throughout its history, the Witte Museum has researched the rock art of the Lower Pecos River in West Texas and hosted photo exhibits, lectures, and fund-raisers supporting the Rock Art Foundation. The New Witte honors this history and reveals new findings in the Kittie West Nelson Ferguson People of the Pecos Gallery, an immersive environment with interactive shelter overhangs and dioramas. In its lab, visitors can work with early tools and technology.

Though rain persisted throughout opening day, visitors continued to pour in for special lectures, music, face-painting, rock painting, falcon flight shows, and to walk in the rain through six new gardens and riverside landscapes.

For those adverse to wet weather, the buildings of the Witte campus for the first time are connected.

Sam Dawson, co-chair of the Witte’s capital campaign, remarked during the dedication that despite all the changes to the museum, “we are still the people’s museum. We can say with confidence that for years to come, we will remain the people’s museum.”

The people on opening day bunched into the H-E-B Lantern entry lobby, digital pterosaurs darting overhead, to buy tickets. Underwriting for free entry on opening day could not be obtained.

“Tickets are an investment that pay dividends to visitors’ families,” said Heather Russo, VP of Development. “Our Witte Society for younger members raises scholarship funding of $70,000 a year. All fourth-graders come in for free, when they study Texas history. Our vision is to endow all field trips.”

Crowds gather inside to look at exhibits at the grand debut of the New Witte on March 4.
Crowds gather inside to look at exhibits at the grand debut of the New Witte on March 4. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report
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Nancy Cook-Monroe

Nancy Cook-Monroe is a local freelance writer and public relations consultant. She has written about San Antonio arts and civic scenes since she could hold a pencil.