Working at the Witte Museum
Have you ever been on a visit to a museum and wondered what it takes to make the exhibits looks as they do? In my naïve younger years, I didn’t think that working in a museum would be labor-intensive. When I was about eleven years old, while in recuperation from a traumatic accident, my Great Aunt took me to the Carnage Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It was on that visit that I decided to pursue a degree in Archaeology. Since that visit to the Carnage Museum of Natural History, it had always been a dream of mine to work in a museum, and it came true when I started volunteering for the Witte Museum in October 2014. They were currently in the process of packing all of the artifacts that were housed at that time on the main campus (and eventually the artifacts that were housed at the Kelly Air Force Base), but I digress slightly. In this report of my internship, I want to touch on several areas. The first being the history of the Witte Museum, second the move, third the exhibits I worked on, and lastly the New Witte.
History of the Witte
The history of the Witte Museum spans a time frame of ninety-two years and has had much involvement from the community. It focuses on the local region and that of Texas. The mission of the Witte is “The Witte Museum promotes lifelong learning through innovative exhibitions, programs and collections in natural history, science, and South Texas heritage” and the vision statement of the museum is “The Witte Museum will be the confluence of the community, culture, and river. It will be an exemplary center where visitors engage in relevant and thought-provoking experiences. Exhibitions, programs, and collections will connect the past, present, and future through a dynamic learning environment”. According to the history section on their webpage, the Witte Museum began as the idea of Ellen Schultz (www.wittemuseum.org/about-the-witte/history). Ellen was a botanist and a high school teacher. She began her goal in 1923 by fundraising to purchase “the well-known H.P. Attwater natural history collection” (www.wittemuseum.org/about-the-witte/history). The San Antonio Museum Association was formed by Schultz and some interested local citizens, of which included Lena McAllister, Ethel Drought, and Mayor John Tobin. Ellen Schultz also organized a fundraiser selling bluebonnets and cakes by school children, and also acting out “historical performances of Los Pastores” (www.wittemuseum.org/about-the-witte/history). Enough money was raised to purchase the natural history collection. The H.P. Attwater natural history collection was “installed at Main Avenue High School on October 8, 1925” (www.wittemuseum.org/about-the-witte/history). When Alfred W. Witte, who was a businessman in San Antonio, “died on September 22, 1925” (www.wittemuseum.org/about-the-witte/history) he left a sum of “$65,000 to fund a museum in Brackenridge Park” (www.wittemuseum.org/about-the-witte/history). Mayor Tobin, along with the San Antonio Museum Association and Architect Robert Ayers, began working on the new museum that was to be named after the parents of Alfred W. Witte. The location was the site “of the original Spanish Acequia Madre de Valero, or irrigation canal that supplied water to the Alamo mission and the surrounding colonial farms” (www.wittemuseum.org/about-the-witte/history). The museum opened on October 8, 1926. Through subsequent decades of the Witte Museum’s almost century-long history, many advancements have been made through community involvement and fundraising. During the 1920s and 1930s, the museum was always short of funds, but grew rapidly adding paintings, historical artifacts, the reptile garden, and beginning “to support archaeological research of the lower Pecos area” (www.wittemuseum.org/about-the-witte/history). In the 1940s, there were three historic structures added to the campus. Through the 1960s and 1970s, the museum campus saw an increase in size of about “60%” (www.wittemuseum.org/about-the-witte/history), and the addition of the McFarlin Jewel room, the Piper wing, a focus on Texas furniture and decorative arts, and bringing in traveling exhibits. The Witte Museum has continued growing up to the present day, which brings me to my next topic: the move.
Moving the Witte Artifacts
When I started volunteering in October of 2014, and throughout my internship from January to August 2015, the museum was in the process of moving their “300,000” (www.wittemuseum.org/about-the-witte/history) plus collection of artifacts. The majority of the artifacts were housed on the main campus within the many rooms hidden to the public. There was also an offsite storage facility in an older part of Kelly Air Force Base. The Witte purchased a building that was felt to be adequately suitable storage. Shelving units were added and the HVAC system was updated. An HVAC system is a filtration system that keeps moisture and dust out of the atmosphere of the storage facility. The artifacts that were housed on the main campus took priority for packing and moving to the new storage facility, as there was a deadline to meet before the new construction could begin. Each artifact was inventoried by writing all of the pertinent information, such as provenience (if it had one), description, the original location where it was housed (for tracking purposes), and any other information associated with that artifact. One very important lesson I learned in my artifact curation class, with Amy Reid at Texas State University, San Marcos, Texas, was that an artifact should never be separated from its provenience. A provenience is the exact location that a specific artifact was found in or on top of the ground. After each artifact was inventoried, it was then wrapped in either buffered or non-buffered tissue paper, depending on the type of materials of which the artifact was made. Buffered tissue preserves the pH balance in artifacts such as archival documents and photographs, while non-buffered tissue paper is used for more organic materials that have the potential for off-gassing, which is part of the decomposition process. Next, each item was either placed in its own compartment in an acid-free blue box or it was wrapped in one-eighth inch foam and placed in a box with other items for transportation to the storage facility. I had the task one day of packing some of the Plains Indians war axes and tomahawks. They had to be packed so that the head of the axe did not move or separate from the handle. Some of them were in very fragile condition and heavy. I got a long flat box and Stephanie Mueller, who is the Assistant Curator of Archaeology, helped me to plan out the way I wanted to pack these items. First, we cut a piece of one-quarter inch foam and put it in the bottom of the box, then a piece of blue board was cut to fit above the foam. A piece of one-eighth inch foam was cut to fit over top of the blue board. I laid the artifacts out on top of that foam to see how they would best fit in the box (there were seven pieces I believe) and next, I used an archival pen to mark the foam so I could punch holes through the blue board. The axes had to be tied down so they did not slide into one another and break during the move. A problem I came across was how to secure the heads of the pieces without potentially causing damage to the artifacts. I suggested to Stephanie that the cotton ties be cross hatched like an X over the head; she agreed this might work and told me foam would need to be placed between the ties and the items. It took me three hours just to get the bottom of the box ready and then someone else had to finish it the next day because, by that time, it was time to go home. That task was very tedious, but I did learn how to secure items so they did not break. It did not matter if any of the tasks were tedious; I enjoyed them all and each one was a lesson learned of a reaffirmation of practices learned in my classes. Most of the rest of the move went the same way, wrapping and packing items on the main campus and the Kelly Air force Base storage. When we finally started working at the new storage facility, it was a little like a puzzle, trying to organize everything into its respective section. I really appreciate Leslie Meyer’s patient indulgence of my curiosity to look at some of the clothing textile items, although it was only a quick peek in the box most times, when we were not sure if the item should go with the items of that country or stay in the Texas History section. Leslie is the Collections Manager at the Witte, and she is the person that I worked with the most during my internship. As exciting as it was to pack and see the artifacts I was looking at, there was an event that I was really anticipating being able to help with, and that was the exhibit that I was able to help install and de-install.
The Fiesta Exhibit – Installing and De-installing
On March 3, 2015, I went to work at the Witte Museum like I did each week, but the difference about this day was, instead of being at the new storage facility, I would be helping install the Fiesta exhibit called The Jewels of the Court. This was to be the biggest display of Fiesta coronation memorabilia that the museum had put on display. It was to include twenty-seven of the outfits worn in various decades by Queens, Princesses, and Duchesses of the Fiesta Royal Court, the President’s robes and one Page’s outfit. The President is the President of The Order of the Alamo, which is a men’s social organization that began hosting the Fiesta coronation in 1909. Since then, it has been a long-standing tradition in San Antonio. The exhibit was also to include photos and paintings of past Queens and their courts, and two floats that were built at one-third the size of the actual floats used in the various parades. There was also a coronation stage set up with the whole court from 1962. Leslie told me when I came in that we had to remove our shoes to prevent dirt getting on the gowns, and to not leave any footprints on the risers where the gowns would be on display. Most of the dresses were already on the mannequins and only needed the finishing touches such as hair, the headpiece the young lady actually wore, and the hand piece (if she carried one). Recently, the young ladies of the courts had veered away from carrying hand pieces as they tended to be bulky, cumbersome, or awkward. Leslie and I started working on the hair for the gown from the 1950s using white, wired satin ribbon and museum wax. The wired ribbon made it easier to shape the hairstyle into the finger-waved bouffant that was to be a representation of the hairstyle worn by the actual young woman and the museum wax, which is a slightly sticky, waxy substance, was to hold the ribbon in place and not destroy the integrity of any of the artifacts. A few more volunteers came in and were all set up as teams. One team was set to steaming the wrinkles out of the gown from the 1930s, the next team took over for Leslie and I working on hair, and two of the ladies that have a lot of sewing experience went to work sewing the embellishments on the 1940s gown, which was a southern-belle style complete with hoops. The Vice President of Exhibits, Randall, came in to hang the remaining four trains on the wall. To hang these trains, a muslin sleeve was sewn to the top, underneath portion and a four-by-six-by-one-inch piece of plywood was inserted into the sleeve. Next, plastic loops were sewn at various points along the sides. I was able to sew the loops on one side of the Duchess’s train from 2014. Carol, a volunteer that handles these gowns as far as repairs or sewing, instructed me to make sure to catch the stiff liner that was underneath the silk/satin layer, which is the one that actually touches the floor when worn. To hang each train on the wall, it had to be lifted by about four to six of us and held up while Randall put screws through the wood piece into the wall, and then at the subsequent locations where the loops were along the sides. Once the loops were on the screws, the trains was basically lying flat against the wall. This was the most physically intense part of installing the exhibit. These trains weighed anywhere from fifty- to seventy-five pounds alone without the dress. The next task was to dress the remaining mannequins to be placed on the float. One float was already almost complete, with the exception of putting the final mannequin up on top. On he float we worked on, the Queen and both Duchesses needed to be dressed. The gowns on these floats were from different courts in the 1950s and 1970s. The last task of the day, which I stayed over to help complete, was to dress the mannequin with the Patterson dress. Ms. Patterson was the Queen of the 1999 court. Her dress was completely embellished with rhinestones in gem settings, as also was her train, which to me looked like a representation of a Persian carpet. Amy Fulkerson (Chief Curator), Randall (Vice President of Exhibits), and I had a difficult time getting this dress on this mannequin. The dress was in four separate pieces with the slip, dress, collar. and train. By the way, this train weighed over 100 pounds. The Jewels of the Court opened March 7, 2015, and the final day for it was May 3, 2015. Usually there is a permanent display of Fiesta gowns in the Coates Gallery that are rotated out each year, but since the main building is undergoing a major renovation, the gowns are packed away until the New Witte Museum opens at some point in 2017. I would have to say that de-installing the Fiesta exhibit was even more labor-intensive because more care had to be taken when removing the dresses from the mannequins and the trains from the walls. When I arrived on May 5, 2015 to work my hours, the de-installation was well underway. Leslie had ordered custom-made boxes from a plastic that looked like cardboard. These are archival-appropriate, as they will keep out bugs (who love to eat fabric), dust, and mold. Each gown and train has its own box, except for the gowns where the train is not detachable. First, a large piece of muslin was laid in the bottom of the box and draped over the sides; second, the gown was placed in the box and made to fit with as few folds as possible to circumvent damage to the article; last, the muslin was draped over to cover the gown and the lid put on along with the label attached. The gowns and trains with many gems and gem settings were packed the same way with the exception that pieces of Volara, which is a dense foam that has no air pockets and a smooth surface, were inserted between the layers, to prevent the gems from making any further impressions on the material. I did learn that we should have probably packed the gowns after they were at the storage facility. Unfortunately, some of the boxes on the bottom of the pallets got crushed from the weight of the garments, even though we loaded them on the pallets with the heaviest on the bottom. Although no one foresaw that this would happen, the boxes were easy to replace and there was no damage to the articles. Leslie did tell me that the boxes are meant for storage only and not transportation. Leslie and I moved the boxes in to what we call the clean room at the new facility, making sure to separate the damaged boxes so that they could be repacked when the ladies came in the next day. I was able to walk through and look at the finished exhibit the day before we were to start de-installation. It felt good to see people admiring the artifacts on display and reading the labels. I even had the opportunity to talk to a couple of visitors and they were surprised to hear how heavy the trains were and what was holding them to the wall. Archaeologists that work in museums, according to Kusimba, develop “appreciation for one’s collections…through constant contact as one collects, catalogs, conserves, researches, and sits back and watches the public appreciation of this work” (168). I, myself, have learned to appreciate the artifacts I have been working with for a new exhibit, or rather an updated one, being implemented in the new Witte.
The New Witte and The People of the Pecos Exhibit
When I was not working on the Fiesta exhibit, packing artifacts, or helping organize the new storage facility, I was working with Stephanie Mueller processing and cataloging the artifacts that will be able to be viewed in the New Witte Museum exhibit, People of the Pecos and two educational labs. Of all the areas I have worked on throughout this internship, this is what has tied it together as far as the training I have received in archaeology and anthropology. Some of the artifacts that I handled had very little or no provenience, which enforces the lessons of never separate an artifact from its provenience and always gather as much information as you can at the time of collection. I was not a participant in the collection of the artifacts currently owned by, held in trust by, or loaned to the Witte. Many of these items are very old (hundreds or thousands of years) and were collected when the field of archaeology was shifting from antiquarianism to archaeology. Antiquarians collected artifacts as a conversation piece for their aesthetic appearance or because they (the artifacts) were very valuable. Most did not bother to learn any information about the items they so avidly collected. Archaeologists and Anthropologists strive to glean as much information as possible about each artifact they collect. It was a little frustrating as I processed these items to learn that there was so little information associated with some of the artifacts. To process these items or catalogue them, each artifact was measured in centimeters, matched to the provenience on the inventory sheets (if available) or to any other pertinent information, and photographed in large and small sizes. The small-sized photographs will be uploaded into ReDiscovery, which is an online database that the museum intends eventually to be accessible to the many visitors for study and research. The artifacts also had to be matched and verified with their Gallagher ID number. Gallagher is a design company that is currently designing the layouts of the new exhibits. Right now we are trying to meet the deadline to complete the processing of the items on the master list. The trouble lately, or I should say all along, has been that we have not been able to work solely on the lists, as there have been many other tasks that have taken priority in needing completion so the construction can move smoothly. As Rosemary A. Joyce states in her article Working in Museums as an Archaeological Anthropologist “the value of training in anthropology is clear when we consider the experience of archaeologists working in museums” (99). Many archaeologists that are trained academically are not employed only in a research capacity, and work closely with multiple other individuals that have many interests in curated materials.
The New Witte Museum, when it is finally completed in 2017, will be, I believe, a fantastic place to visit. I am proud that I was able to be a part and continue to be a part of this process and am looking forward to seeing the finished project. The Witte is striving to create an experience that will not only be pleasing to look at, with the remodeled Coates Gallery and re-installation of the Fiesta gowns, but will also make it an unforgettable educational experience with the Dinosaur hall, the People of the Pecos exhibit, two learning labs, and many other exhibits including visible storage for their 300,000 plus artifacts. I have learned a great deal about the practices, tools, and resources we use to be able to share these fantastic things from our history with the public. I am glad I have had the opportunity to use the techniques I learned during my training to get the experience of honing my skills for use in the future, and working in the collections department has helped to better understand the practices I learned in my classes.
Kusimba, Chapurukha M., “Archaeology in African Museums”, The African Archaeological Review, Vol. 13, No. 3 (Sep., 1996), pp. 168, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25130596
Joyce, Rosemary A., “Working in Museums as an Archaeological Anthropologist”, Could not find exact location of reference on JSTOR.
Unknown Author, About the Witte/History”, http://www.wittemuseum.org, Could not find the sponsor, (8/8/15), http://www.wittemuseum.org/about-the-witte/history,
See You at the Witte Museum