Curation History and Heritage Museums

Zoe Heinsohn, The Witte Museum

Since its inception in the early 20th century, the Witte Museum has been the product of organized community effort. In the early 1920s, the city of San Antonio was growing but lacked persons of sufficient wealth to provide the money needed to open a museum. In the first half of the decade, a diverse group of individuals–including prominent clubwomen, a school teacher, various community leaders, and the owner of an extensive natural history collection—came together to organize and raise money for the city’s first public museum. Shortly after they broke ground, local businessman Alfred Witte died. In his will, he bequeathed $65,000 to the city of San Antonio to fund an art, science, and natural history museum in Brackenridge Park. This donation allowed for the expansion of the museum to include two new wings. The following year, on October 8th, 1926, the Witte Memorial Museum opened to the public. Since then, the Witte Museum has continued to be a dynamic and inclusive center of community education.

A significant part of the Witte’s mission is inspired by its location; not only is it an art and natural history museum, it focuses particularly on local Texas artists and the San Antonio river, on which it is located. In the nearly 90 years since the museum opened, it has expanded to include several additional components, such as the H-E-B Body Adventure building (previously the Science Treehouse), the South Texas Heritage Center, and the B. Naylor Morton Research and Collections Center, which is the first phase of an ongoing project to bring more of the 300,000 objects in the Witte’s collection closer to the public via visible storage. The idea of using visible storage to provide greater public access to museum collections is a fairly new one; as recently as the late 1990s, some museums, such as the Musée de l’Homme, kept over 90% of their collection locked away in various cabinets or basements. Furthermore, computer terminals with access to the database will also be available, so that information typically only available to staff will now be at the fingertips of the average visitor.

During my time at the Witte, I assisted in the installation of two temporary exhibits and one permanent. First, object layouts are generated by hand or computer based on dimensional information of both object and case; they serve to give a working visual representation of display space on each stand and the perspective of the viewer. This saves time during the actual installation process, though no layout is set in stone. Often, several different layouts for the same set of objects are created, as I did with some of the display drawers and cases in the Collection Center. Objects are then individually placed in the appropriate spot and checked for stability and visibility.

There are several methods of securing an object in a display case without interfering with the object being displayed. One of the methods I most often used was the application of museum wax. Museum wax is a type of microcrystalline putty that is easily removable and safe to use on most objects and materials, including wood, for temporary or permanent display. Supports can also be made from clear stands of sturdy, archival quality plastic, which allow the object to be positioned upright and remain stable. This method was used in displaying many three-dimensional objects in the Maximilian and Carlota exhibit. This exhibit examined the lives of Maximilian I and his wife Carlota, appointed emperor and empress of Mexico by Napoleon III for several years during the American Civil War prior to Maximilian’s execution; many of the objects displayed were artifacts from their rule, such as silverware sets, propaganda, and clothing, and so could not simply be hung or laid flat. Objects that would be in direct contact with the base of the display case were usually protected with a layer of Mylar, a highly stable polyester material that comes in transparent, thin sheets. I trimmed sheets of Mylar to the shape of individual objects and inserted those between the surface of the case and the bottom of the object. Mylar can also be used to protect flat textiles. However, if the textiles are to be displayed in another manner, as in the Fiesta dress exhibit, they do not usually require protection.

In the Fiesta exhibit, coronation robes from past Fiesta parades are arranged according to a theme and displayed on mannequins. Many display methods become irreversible when applied to textiles and so cannot be used. Compounded with the weight of the dresses and corresponding trains, display was more difficult than simply arranging and labeling the garments. Any pins, hooks, or supports used had to be easily undone, out of view, and do little to no damage to the dress itself.

The installation process for a standard temporary exhibit usually takes a week or more, as the rest of the exhibit—including paint, decorations, and the stands themselves—must be planned and built before the objects are placed in the exhibit.

The installation of the Orientation Room in the B. Naylor Morton Research and Collections Center took significantly longer. Unlike the two temporary exhibits I helped install, the Orientation Room is a permanent exhibit. Therefore, the process of installation, protection, and display was quite different. To ensure long term stability, the Collections department used specially constructed glass display cases with pull-out drawers on the bottom half. The objects placed in these drawers would have to remain in place as the drawers were pulled in and out, so a Styrofoam base was inserted into each drawer. To support and secure each object, I assisted in outlining and carving individual spaces in the foam to the appropriate depths so that the item would fit snugly in the foam while remaining nearly flush with the surface. These spaces were lined with Tyvek, a stable and inflammable paper material with a neutral pH to protect against any damage during the long-term storage of the item. The entire base was then topped with another layer of smooth foam, a label, and a sheet of glass that was screwed in to the top of the drawer. Six of the nine cases in the Orientation Room feature these pull-out drawers for additional visible storage.

Whereas large metropolitan museums can rely on heavy amounts of tourism, visitors to smaller museums are typically students or families of the surrounding area, most of whom make repeat trips. For them, the museum must be directly relatable to be worthwhile. In his 1997 essay “Museums as Contact Zones” James Clifford argues for an “expansion of the range of things that can happen in museums and museum-like settings.” He illustrates his point with several examples, one of which was an exhibit at the New Guinea Sculpture Garden, where traveling sculptors interacted with visitors to make the garden collaboratively. He invites the reader to “consider how the interactive process of its making opens up a different range of relations from those normally practiced in contexts of collecting and display.”

Interaction, direct and indirect, shapes many of the Witte’s exhibits and programs, particularly the educational science and natural history exhibits. Through direct interaction and practical application of information, these exhibits educate visitors of all ages about important principles of a modern society that are immediately relatable. For example, the H-E-B Body Adventure is a brand new public health program aimed at promoting a healthy, balanced life for all members of the family in a four-floor interactive exhibit.

Clifford further delineates the role of communities in shaping museum programming by discussing how “museums routinely adapt to the tastes of an assumed audience—in major metropolitan institutions, largely an educated, bourgeois, white audience.” Again in contrast to larger institutions, the Witte Museum does not cater to this assumed audience, but rather embraces the diverse heritage of the city it’s in. The annual themed exhibit of Fiesta parade coronation robes celebrates a unique San Antonio tradition with a care and enthusiasm that matches even the elaborate traveling exhibits. These dresses are symbolic of the climax of Fiesta; a period of several days of coming together to celebrate the history of San Antonio culminates in a parade in the heart of the city honoring the fallen heroes of the Alamo. The yearly exhibition of dresses from various periods in the city’s history actively connects visitors with the local institutions of the past by presenting them in a relatable context.

Even in historical exhibits that do not feature local events, the structure and story provided by the museum causes some re-evaluation of personal perspectives. As exemplified in the Witte’s Maximilian and Carlota exhibit, items from the relatively recent past can become relatable to the average visitor provided there is sufficient and appropriate context. The narrative layout of the exhibit—tracing Maximilian’s personal life, the politics behind his installation, the products of his short rule, and his eventual execution—provides a landscape in which to place the items exhibited and extract meaning from them. Though the Civil War is a time period familiar to most anyone who went through middle-school history classes, the occurrence of Maximilian’s reign is not. If nothing else, the intrusion of such a striking event into what most consider a well-known period of American history encourages visitors to consider what else might be left out of the textbooks.

Throughout my time at the Witte, I have been struck with by the museum strives to accurately and thoroughly reflect, integrate, and celebrate the community it serves. The three exhibits discussed here as well as many other Witte programs have all carefully taken into consideration the needs and interests of the people who visit it most: the people who live here. The collection of local art not only showcases the talent of artists born and raised in the city, but also features art of San Antonio and the surrounding area, so visitors may get a new perspective on the aesthetic of the city and the fields and hills surrounding it. This extends to the Fiesta exhibit; in exhibiting the dresses, the museum seeks to celebrate events and institutions that are specific to the community through art and design. The Witte, by exhibiting objects and art from the city’s past, allows visitors to better understand the rich heritage of San Antonio and connect it with the cultural institutions of today. Beyond the selection of exhibit subjects, the future direction of the museum indicates the desire to serve the public. Instead of keeping the majority of the collection in storage and out of the public eye, the Witte has planned to put the entire collection into visible storage. No longer will artifacts and specimens be kept behind locked doors to be seen only by researchers; all who wish to will be able to view the Witte’s legacy. I believe that this attitude is what makes the Witte so popular and why I chose to intern there.


Clifford, James. 1997. “Museums as Contact Zones.” In Representing the Nation: A Reader. Histories, Heritage, and Museums. David Bosnell and Jessica Evans, eds. Pp. 435-57. New York: Routledge.

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