Imperative VII: Provide Outstanding Academic Facilities

June 4, 2003

Inside Baylor's Strecker Museum, you'll find an intriguing assortment of artifacts including a huge prehistoric turtle fossil, a log cabin and a whale skull. But what you won't see are modern, interactive exhibits commonly found in newer museums. 
"We are stuck in the 1970s - even the colors just scream of the '70s," says Dr. Ellie Caston, who became the museum's director of operations in 1997. "It's cases with stuff in them. Lots of labels. It's a looking museum." 
Granted, she says, it was designed in 1968 when Strecker, one of the oldest collections of natural and cultural history objects in Texas, was moved to the basement of the Sid Richardson Science Building. The site was intended to be a short-term solution; 35 years later, it still is. 
"We've been able to do a lot of great things in modest facilities, but there is a limit to what you can do, and we've reached that limit," Dr. Caston says. "It's a really difficult balancing act continuing to grow an operation, look to the future and maintain the present."
But the future finally is nearing the present for the old Strecker museum complex. The $23 million, 143,000-square-foot Sue and Frank Mayborn Museum complex -- which includes the Harry and Anna Jeanes Discovery Center -- is slated to open in May 2004, a little more than three years after groundbreaking. Located on University Parks Drive in front of the Gov. Bill and Vara Daniel Historic Village -- also one of the University's museums -- the complex will house many favorite displays from the Strecker Museum and Ollie Mae Moen Discovery Center, as well as new permanent exhibits.
The museum's upgrade is one of the University's first efforts to address Baylor 2012's seventh imperative, providing outstanding academic facilities (see the sidebar story "Science Update" for additional information on other building projects).
Rick L. Creel, assistant vice president for operations and facilities, says the new museum complex will be a boon for Baylor and Central Texas. "I expect that in addition to students, faculty, staff and the Waco community using the Mayborn Complex as a fabulous resource, we will see people traveling in from outlying communities and beyond. The museum and exhibits promise to be a huge drawing card," he says. 
This hasn't been the case in the past, says Calvin Smith, associate professor and chair of the museum studies department. Smith, who retired in May after 20 years at Baylor, helped create the program in 1983. He says the facilities' lack of accessibility and visibility have been a hindrance. 
"I have people come to me saying, 'Oh, I wish I would have known this program was available,'" Smith says. "We tried to make this a suitable atmosphere for students, but it's so tight and so cramped, with so little opportunity for them to interact."
But somehow in the dark, damp space, the museum studies department -- which offers the only undergraduate program in Texas and one of few in the nation -- has managed to grow from one student in 1983 to more than 50 last fall. Still, there are only two teaching classrooms, one each for the 40 undergraduate students and the dozen or so graduate students. Faculty members and administrators occupy a handful of offices crammed into a narrow hallway, and the collection storage rooms literally have been dug out of the basement walls.
In spite of these challenges, educational programming at Baylor's museums has remained a priority, says Dr. Caston, now acting director of the Mayborn Museum Complex. The Ollie Mae Moen Discovery Center, temporarily located in downtown Waco, is a children's museum in which young visitors get to touch and experience specimens and artifacts. Last summer, it was named the 29th best children's museum in the nation by Child magazine and the Association of Children's Museums. "Our cake is good," she says. "Now, we're going to have icing."
Construction on the museum complex will be completed by this fall, but that will be only the first step toward the grand opening in May, she says. An exhibit design team from Houston began building many of the displays months ago, which still will need to be installed. Other exhibits, such as the 1,000-square-foot cave and 1,600-square-foot forest dioramas, will be constructed on-site. 
"It is going to be hard for everybody to wait," she says. "We're going to have fabulous exhibits, but it just takes a really long time. You don't come in over the weekend and put them up." 
Much of the educational curriculum being developed for museum patrons will be theme-based and will include interactive components, Dr. Caston says. Ecology, for example, can be studied hands-on in the recycling room of the Discovery Center, the forest in the permanent exhibit or outside on the banks of the Brazos River. 
"There is something for everybody, and it doesn't matter if you're 18 months old or 94," she says. "It's for families, it's for adults, it's for researchers." 
And it's also for Baylor students. "Most students on campus have no idea where the museum is," she says of its current location. But Dr. Caston envisions students from all academic disciplines utilizing the new museum complex -- theater majors who re-enact historical characters at the Village; education majors who observe schoolchildren on field trips; and science majors who use the research library or study the exhibits. 
"I just hope that every department will dream up some way to find a connection and use us," she says. "Our visibility has literally been raised. Everybody is going to know about Baylor's new museum."