Internship at the Witte
The following report details my time as a collections intern at the Witte Museum in San Antonio, Texas. During my three-month long stay at the Witte, I worked under the guidance of Stephanie Prichard, Registrar; Leslie Ochoa, Collections Manager; and Amy Fulkerson, Chief Curator. I was lucky enough to have started my internship during the final phase of construction for the New Witte building. The New Witte building features over 100,000 square feet of exhibit space, including : The HEB Lantern Valero Great Hall Orientation Gallery, Naylor Family Dinosaur Gallery, Kittie West Ferguson People of the Pecos Gallery, and the McLean Family Texas Wild Gallery. Thanks to this new addition to the Witte, I was able to get hands-on experience in a wide variety of tasks that I might not have been exposed to anywhere else. The following report will delve into further detail on the activities I participated in, and the skills that I gained while working at both the New Witte and the B. Naylor Morton Research and Collections Center.
A Brief History of the Witte
The Witte Museum that we know of today would have never come to fruition without the tireless work of renowned teacher, botanist, and San Antonio native, Ellen Quillin Schultz. In 1923, Schultz began making strides towards her goal of opening a museum by raising money with the help of the newly formed San Antonio Museum Association. Their combined efforts led to the purchase of H.P. Attwater’s prized natural history collection. Soon after, she opened a small exhibit for this collection within Main Avenue High School on October 8th of that same year. Two years later, Schultz was met with great fortune- literally. In 1925, prominent businessman Alfred Witte passed away, leaving $65,000 to the San Antonio Museum Association for the construction of a museum in Brackenridge Park. They went to work on construction right away, and the Witte Museum was officially opened a year later on the anniversary of Ellen Schultz’s first exhibition in Main Avenue High School.
The Witte’s first few decades of life were exciting, to say the least. Donations poured in, and the Witte quickly became a cultural hub where artists, teachers, scholars, and average citizens of all walks of life could congregate and discuss a wide variety of interests. By 1930 the Witte was able to expand into archaeological pursuits by helping fund valuable research in the Pecos region of Texas, along with the wilds of Big Bend. The decision to help fund these projects not only provided valuable insight into the past cultures of those areas, but also allowed the Witte to broaden its collections and connections. Ellen Quillin Schultz devoted the next 30 years of her life to the Witte and stepped down only when she felt that the Witte’s place as a respectable museum had been solidified.
Today, the Witte Museum is headed by Marise McDermott who was named President and CEO in 2004. Under the leadership of Mrs. McDermott, some of the largest, and most ambitious projects since Ellen Quillin’s time have been undertaken. In particular, 2012 was the start of an enormous spur of activity for the museum. During that year, the Witte constructed an entirely new building known as the South Texas Heritage Center next to the original campus. It is here that a vast array of art and artifacts related directly to the history of Texas can be found. Only 2 years later, the state-of-the-art B. Naylor Morton Research and Collections Center was opened. This building houses over 300,000 artifacts in open storage, where the public can get a behind the scenes look at how artifacts are stored and cared for. Within this building are also the offices of the collections staff and curators that take care of the artifacts, along with an archival space where scholars can visit and conduct research. The biggest project to date, however, is the construction on the “New Witte” space, which officially opened on March 4th, 2017. The New Witte building consists of over 100,000 square feet of gallery space, including the Naylor Family Dinosaur Hall (Fig. 1), the H-E-B Lantern Valero Great Hall and Orientation Gallery, McLean Family Texas Wild Gallery, and the Kittie West Ferguson People of the Pecos Gallery.
Working in the New Witte
Within the New Witte Building, I helped prepare the exhibits for both the People of the Pecos, and Natural Beauty: Fiesta of Land, Water, and Sky. I aided in the preparation of displays for both exhibits, and each required a very different approach due to differences in space and content.
When visitors make their way to the second floor of the New Witte building, they are instantly transported thousands of years into the past to a space that resembles a rock shelter. This area is complete with exact replicas of wall art found in real rock shelters and life-size dioramas displaying what a day in the life might look like for the prehistoric peoples of the Pecos (Fig. 2). These dioramas illustrate typical daily chores such as the gathering of Agave plants and the processing of animal hides. Visitors have the opportunity to get up close and personal with these activities and as a result, get a good sense of what this hunter-gatherer culture could have been like.
During my time working on this exhibit, I learned how to properly install artifacts such as stone tools, sandals, and baskets into custom-made display cases. For instance, when installing artifacts I found that a good lid seal is essential for an artifact case to be completely effective. A full seal, combined with a drying agent, is extremely important to have in a case due to its critical role in helping maintain a stable, safe environment for the artifacts. I was also taught how to make pads for plant-fiber sandals to rest on inside cases with drawers. This process consisted of tracing the shape of a sandal on mylar (a clear plastic material), which would then be used to cut out the same shape on archival cardboard. Once the proper shape was achieved with the cardboard, I finished the pad by pinning and sewing muslin onto the board (Figs. 3 and 4).
Natural Beauty: Fiesta of Land Water and Sky exhibit celebrates a phenomenon that is uniquely San Antonian — the pomp and glamor that is Fiesta. Before working at the Witte, I had actually never heard of Fiesta, but I soon learned of its deep importance to the culture in San Antonio. In 1891, Fiesta San Antonio started as a parade celebrating the heroes of the Alamo and the Battle of San Jacinto. Fast-forward to today, and “Fiesta has grown into a celebration of San Antonio’s rich and diverse cultures” (Fiesta San Antonio Comission: 2017). The parades that take place during the celebration feature women dressed in extravagant dresses hand-made by tailors in San Antonio, and it is these gowns that take the spotlight in the Witte’s newest Fiesta exhibit. The exhibit itself features dresses from several different “courts” in Fiesta- with the earliest being from the 1950s.
Due to the fact that this exhibit centers around nothing but beautiful gowns, I learned quite a lot about the installation and handling of textiles. I quickly discovered that dressing a mannequin for a display is not as easy as it looks. Each dress weighs upwards of 40 pounds and required at least 3 people to lift and place the dress onto the mannequin. Once the dress had made it on the mannequin, it rarely fit correctly, and required some adjustments to the height, bust, and/or hips. Each dress is also accompanied by an equally exquisite train, which was hung on the wall behind its associated dress. These trains are even heavier than the dresses themselves, and a number of hands were required to help lift these 60 pound garments to be hung (Fig. 5).
Aside from handling the garments themselves, I also learned how gifts and loans were handled through several trips to donor’s houses to pick up their Fiesta gowns. In order for a gift or loan to be accepted, the donor must sign a form confirming their gift or loan. Thankfully, the form is fairly straightforward. It documents the donor’s current address and contact information, lists the items that are being considered as a gift, and states how the donor will be credited. These forms are extremely important; they can easily provide information as to where an object came from, or how long it has been held by the Witte. They also play a large part in data entry- another important facet to museum work I was able to have first-hand experience with.
Working in the B. Naylor Morton Research and Collections Center
My time spent in the MRCC can be split into two activities- condition reporting and data entry. These are some of the more tedious aspects of collections management, but are also hugely important to the proper function of a museum. Condition reporting consists of the systematic assessment of a particular collection and each item associated with it (Fig. 6). Systems may vary from museum to museum, but I was taught to collect information about items such as their appearance, material, dimensions, overall condition, and artist (if any).
After completing each condition report, I took photos of each item in the collection I reported on, carefully repackaged each artifact, and moved on to data entry.
The database that the Witte currently uses is called Rediscovery Proficio, and is an invaluable resource to the museum. Rediscovery serves as the Witte’s central informational hub where collections employees can find pictures of artifacts, their location, donor information, and information collected in condition reports. Thanks to the Witte, I was able to learn how to navigate and enter data into this program with ease.
If I had to describe my experience at the Witte in one word, I would have to say exceptional. There was not a single day that I felt was wasted in terms of learning opportunities, and I met each day with excitement, and an eagerness to learn. It is thanks to the supervision and tutelage of Stephanie Prichard, Leslie Ochoa and Amy Fulkerson, that I was able to learn many valuable skills and techniques that I will no doubt carry over with me into future job opportunities.
Pfeiffer, Maria Watson
WITTE MUSEUM. Handbook of Texas Online. Texas State Historical Association. https://tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/lbw03, accessed April 7, 2017.
QUILLIN, ELLEN DOROTHY SCHULZ. Handbook of Texas Online. Texas State Historical Association. https://tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fqu09, accessed April 8, 2017.
The History of the Witte Museum. The Witte Museum. http://www.wittemuseum.org/history-2/, accessed April 7, 2017.
History of Fiesta. Fiesta San Antonio. Fiesta San Antonio Commission. https://www.fiesta-sa.org/about-fiesta-san-antonio/, accessed May 2, 2017