Curation Museums

Victoria Lanas, the Witte Museum

INTERNSHIP WITH THE WITTE MUSEUM

This final report outlines in detail my three-month internship during the fall of 2015 at the Witte Museum in San Antonio with their curator of Anthropology and Health, Dr. Bryan Bayles. I participated in museum meetings, helped collect research for an academic essay, observed museum programs for kids, and cataloged. This report will further discuss what I observed about the steps involved in planning future exhibits, the research role of a museum curator, my experiences with other daily museum operations, the inner workings I observed in the museum, and how my experience with anthropological theories and studies can be applied to the interworkings of museums.

ABOUT THE WITTE:

The Witte Museum is composed of art galleries, Texas historic exhibits, and traveling exhibits. The museum was founded in 1923 when Ellen Schultz decided to crate her dream of a museum for San Antonio and its expansion. By 1925, a businessman named Alfred W. Witte had died and left behind $65,000 worth of funding for a future museum in San Antonio. The Witte museum was created within the next year after his death and was dedicated to his parents. Archaeological research was conducted in the Lower Pecos Valley and some areas in Big Bend continued throughout the 1903s, which generated public awareness of the Witte.

The research from these areas increased outreach that enabled the Witte to gain its own financial support as a museum because the collections attracted more visitors and funding from donors. Also, many of these Lower Pecos programs are still a large part of what attract the school groups today. This expansion of programs, collections, and exhibits has continued into what we see today at the Witte.

The Witte is almost 90 years old and is continuing to grow as a museum to encompass its own new permanent exhibits and to open new innovative spaces for traveling exhibits, such as the Maya: Hidden Worlds Revealed exhibit that will open in May of 2016 in the new Mays Family Center.

WORKING IN A MUSEUM:

My internship activities and responsibilities more specifically included research on marine shell pendants, participating in any specialized exhibit-related content meetings, observing the school programs the museum has to offer, and learning the cataloging process at the Witte’s storage facility, Stout.

– RESEARCH:

My internship supervisor, Dr. Bayles is in the process of creating a report on archaeological trade networks of marine shell pendants of the Later Archaic in Texas. He hopes to gather all of this information into one report for future research on the rare shell pendants. Report writing and research is very important because, according to Jonathan Haas in his article Anthropology in the Contemporary Museum, “a key part of my job is to engage in active anthropological research” (Haas 1998: 55). But the reality is that there isn’t always time to gather information and perform research. The research that is performed in museums is primarily exhibit based and rarely involves self-directed research. Just as Barbara L. Voss states in her article self-directed research is “this ideal of untapped research potential, waiting to be unleashed, [yet] quickly fades against the reality of conducting research on existing collections” (Voss 2012: 148). The report I helped gather information for was put off for ten years due to the demand on other studies within the museum.

My part of the research involved gathering new, additional information and visuals of artifacts for a scholarly report that is being produced by Dr. Bayles, my internship supervisor. For the report, I added to the data that had previously been collected by visiting the Center for Archaeological Research in San Antonio to view shells that we had no previous knowledge of and to take more detailed pictures of shells that we only had sketches for. I found that the shells came in many different designs with no obvious pattern among them and that many of them were usually found at burial sites. Majority of the information that had on the shells was from archaeological journals called La Tierra and the Texas Beyond History public education services website. Unfortunately my research was halted when I tried to view more shells but was asked by the repository that I was contacting to pay a fee, for which I did not have the funds to do so.

THE WORKING PARTS OF THE MUSEUM

– EDUCATIONAL PROGRAMS

Community involvement is one of the most important aspects in the life of a museum. The Witte museum encourages connection through membership enrollment, school group program tours, and collaborations with other community leaders. During my internship, I followed, observed, and participated in the school programs the Witte offers. The three programs I witnessed were called “The Dynamic River”, “South Texas Heritage”, and “People of the Pecos”. The Dynamic River program involved discussion about the history of the San Antonio River and the ways humans have lived along it, using different and advancing technology over time such as water mills and Archimedean screws.

Figure 1

Figure 1

Figure 2

Figure 2

During the South Texas Heritage program, the students and I were introduced to the Witte’s exhibit of artifacts from the south. The exhibit brings Texas History to life by telling displaying images and artifacts of the lifestyles of Comanches, Vaqueros, and Cowboys in the 1800s. I interacted with the fourth grade children by encouraging them to use vocabulary and observation skills that they focused on in their classrooms and applying them to the visuals, such as artifacts, actor performances, and tours, of the exhibit. While going through the program with the children, I noticed that the incorporation of their classroom vocabulary and syllabus, it made the whole program and exhibit more enjoyable and accessible for children.

The People of the Pecos program was my personal favorite because in this program the students and I got a lot of hands-on experience that allowed us to understand the amount of energy the people of the Pecos put into their everyday lives, through their creation of art, making of ropes (figure 1) , and hunting of animals (figure 2).

– PREPARING EXHIBITS

In order to create such thorough, informative, and fun programs, meetings must be held to get creative heads together. Meetings are a large part of what happens behind museum doors because there are so many working parts that go into creating a presentation that accommodates all of the community. Meetings are a key element in helping a team gets together so there can be more input, ideas, and accomplishments finalized.

In order for museums to expand their buildings, display new traveling and permanent exhibits, and educate and preserve art or history for future generations, they require support from the community, funding, and a strong diversified staff. The Witte is an ever-growing museum and this is due to the support of their expanded staff that has a strong understanding of the importance of community and state outreach. The more financial support the museum has from donors and the public the more the museum can expand and make use of its stored artifacts. For example, I attended the Colloquium for the upcoming Maya exhibit that will be the opener exhibit for the new Mays building that is currently being constructed. During the meeting, attendees introduced themselves after being split into their tables. After introductions were finished, there was a brief presentation of what would be included in the Maya exhibit and from there each table went on to brainstorm and answer a few questions to “Witte-ize” and add-to the show. The tables divided the groups and each table had two general questions that everyone was asked and then one question that was specific to the table. These questions involved ways for the Witte Museum to achieve a larger and greater outreach not just to the San Antonio community but also to the statewide community. After about forty-five minutes each table presented their ideas to the rest of the groups and these ideas were taken and comprised into a list that would be sent to all of the attendees (figures 3 and 4).

 

Figure 4

Figure 4

Figure 3

Figure 3

– COLLECTIONS MANAGEMENT

In many cases, majority of a facility’s artifacts are stuck in storage, sometimes-poor conditions, because of lack of funding and therefore, lack of time and space (Childs 1995: 12). The most common problem is running out of space to house all of the artifacts that compile over decades of research and donation. The Witte Museum has solved some of this curation crisis by opening up the B. Naylor Morton Research and Collections Center in 2014 (figure 5). This center is an innovation for the future in which they display 300,000 artifacts, which once sat in storage, that are now exhibited in visible storage for the public to view.

figure5

Figure 5

The Witte was also able to purchase a new storage facility, called Stout, which has good housing conditions for the variety of artifacts they take care of. During the last few weeks of my internship, I traveled to Stout where I got to view the artifacts that are not exhibited at the moment.

figure6

Figure 6

The Collections Assistants taught me how the Witte organizes their shelving and sections within the facility. After a tour of the facility, they then taught me how they catalogue the articles from each box. Each artifact within each box gets its own sheet that is to be filled out with as many details of the artifact as possible so it will be easier to locate and identify in the future. Then pictures are taken of artifact from appropriate angles. Once all of the information is collected, and then the sheets are organized in a spot for the Collections Manager to input them into their cataloging software on their computer. Finally, the artifacts are repacked properly and safely back into their acid free boxes and returned to their proper storage location (figure 6).

Having a good, organized system in a museum’s repository is another key element in the success and growth of a museum. During my time at Stout, we also did a lot of reorganizing due to future exhibits that will need certain artifacts. The reorganizing and moving around of artifacts enables there to be an easier transition of exhibit items being moved out and into the facility.

CONCLUSION:

I began my internship at the Witte Museum with only the perspective of an average museum visitor develops. However, over the course of the semester I was able to shadow different interworking parts of the staff of the museum world that I previously did not know of. I have always been interested in the curation of objects and artifacts but through this internship I got to experience, vicariously through the staff of the Witte Museum, the processes that are involved in the making of exhibits and the importance of teamwork among them all.

REFERENCES:

  • Haas, Jonathan
  • 1998 Anthropology in the Contemporary Museum. The Field Museum , (1999): 53-57
  • Voss, Barbara L.
  • 2012 Curation as research. A case study in orphaned and underreported archaeological collections. Cambridge University Press, Anthropological Dialogues 19 (2): 145-169
  • Childs, Terry S.
  • 1995 The Curation Crisis. Federal Archeology Volume 7. Issue No. 4 (1995): 10-15

About the author

The Internship Coordinator

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