Texans don’t call San Antonio’s Witte Museum the “people’s museum” to be folksy.
Unlike many museums that come into being with a nice endowment from a wealthy family, the Witte had far humbler beginnings.
While San Antonio saw itself as “thriving” in the 1920s, it lacked the kinds of cultural institutions that mark a great city. High school teacher Ellen Schulz was determined to change that.
She took her idea of a museum to community leaders, who asked her, “What is a museum?”
Schulz had her eye on H.P. Attwater’s natural history collection, up for sale in 1922. Help for her cause came from schoolchildren, who stood on street corners with cigar boxes, asking, “Spare a dime?”
Adults got in the act too, selling bluebonnets (the state flower) and cakes, and staging performances.
In all, they gathered $6,200 to buy the collection and install it at the Main Avenue High School in 1923.
But within a year, the “museum” proved so popular, it needed its own building. With the help of her friend and high school principal, Emma Gutzeit, Schulz convinced Mayor John Tobin to commit land in San Pedro Park and $25,000 in city funds to construct a two-story building. Ground broke on September 22, 1925.
Two days later, local businessman Alfred G. Witte died. Unbeknownst to Schulz or city officials, Witte’s will bequeathed $65,000 to the city for the construction of a museum in Brackenridge Park to be named for his parents. Mayor Tobin halted Schulz’s project and moved it to Brackenridge.
Schulz, the “heart and soul” of the people’s museum, became its first director and served for 34 years.
“The museum opened on October 8, 1926, and on October 12, three thousand people visited the museum. The local paper said that for several hours, every streetcar dislodged visitors at the new museum,” notes the Witte’s President and CEO Marise McDermott. “People came from all over south Texas. Within two years, all the great ranch families brought their artifacts to be included in the museum—we have the King Ranch mudwagon and beautiful Apache baskets.”
Along the way, the Witte became the “attic of south Texas,” and it remains the most-visited museum in San Antonio. Its 350,000 visitors a year saw all the exhibits the museum could hold—just one percent of its 200,000 artifacts, Communications Vice President Jim Dalglish says.
But Memorial Day weekend will mark a “new era” for the Witte—the opening of the South Texas Heritage Center. Dalglish tells us the addition will allow the museum to display at least 40 percent of its collection.
The 20,000-square-foot center will offer exhibits on ranching; San Antonio’s Main Plaza in the 1840s; oil and gas artifacts; border life; horse culture; and a 19th- and 20th-century Texas art gallery.
McDermott, the newest visionary to the Witte, grew up in New York and began her life in Texas as a cultural art journalist. She served the Witte as the humanities director from 1989-96, then returned, becoming president and CEO in 2004, just in time to lead the massive expansion efforts.
But try to call her an Old West Savior for her efforts, and she rejects the idea. “Today’s Old West Saviors at the Witte are the people—they tell us what they want in the museum, and my role is to listen to them and do what they want,” McDermott says. “We have our ears on all the time.”
The grand opening of the South Texas Heritage Center promises to be a real doozy—just the latest example of how to build a “people’s museum.”
Jana Bommersbach has been Arizona’s Journalist of the Year and has won an Emmy and two Lifetime Achievement Awards. She is the author of two nationally-acclaimed true crime books and a member of Women Writing the West.