The History of the Witte Museum

The Witte Museum inspires people to shape the future of Texas through relevant and transformative experiences in nature, science and culture.

The Beginning

Botanist and high school teacher Ellen Schultz began her goal of starting a museum for the growing city of San Antonio in 1923. She began fundraising to acquire the well-known H.P. Attwater natural history collection the same year. Schultz and other interested local citizens including Lena McAllister, Ethel Drought and Mayor John Tobin formed the San Antonio Museum Association. Schultz organized schoolchildren to raise funds to acquire the Attwater Collection by selling bluebonnets and cakes and doing historical performances of Los Pastores. They raised enough funds and the natural history collection was purchased and installed at Main Avenue High School on October 8, 1923.

San Antonio businessman Alfred W. Witte died September 22, 1925, leaving $65,000 to fund a museum in Brackenridge Park. The gift was unexpected and the members of the San Antonio Museum Association went to work with Mayor Tobin and Architect Robert Ayers on the new museum named for Witte’s parents. The site chosen was the location of the original Spanish Acequia Madre de Valero, or irrigation canal, that supplied water to the Alamo mission and the surrounding colonial farms. The Witte Museum opened just over a year later to a huge community celebration on October 8, 1926.

A Growing Institution

Through the late 1920s and 1930s Ellen Schultz Quillin worked for a dollar-a-year salary and managed a total operating budget of $100. While always short of funds, the museum grew rapidly adding paintings and historical artifacts. The collection additions included some of the most important pieces in the now vast Witte holdings.

Both the San Antonio Art League and the San Antonio Conservation Society operated out of the Witte Museum. Throughout the 1930s the Witte Museum became a gathering place for artists, researchers, scholars, and the general community. To raise money, dances, chuck wagon dinners, and classes on a number of subjects were scheduled and became increasingly popular. Some of the most popular classes were art instructional classes led by some of the most important artists in the area. The art classes continued for decades and some now well-known Texas artists took their first art lessons at the Witte Museum.

During the 1930s, the Witte began supporting archeological research in the canyons of the Lower Pecos area and the almost inaccessible areas of the Big Bend. The pioneering expeditions were led by the Southwest Texas Archeological Society with support and staffing from the Witte Museum. The efforts led to the building of new galleries at the Witte and expanded financial support, not to mention the important research findings and addition to the collections, now the finest of their kind in the world.

The Reptile Garden, another fundraising plan by Ellen Schultz Quillin, opened in the 1930s. Eight-hundred visitors attended opening day paying ten cents each to see the program. A professional herpetologist demonstrated milking rattlesnakes in the outdoor facility and did continuing research to develop an anti-venom serum. The Reptile Garden programs were a hit with the public and a great source of income through and after the depression. Fried rattlesnake was also served at the Reptile Garden and the Rattlesnake Dinners continued as a fundraising event for sixteen years.

Making a Village

Three historic structures were added to the Witte Museum campus in the 1940s. The first, in 1941, was the riverside home of San Antonio banker John Twohig. When Quillin and her supporters found the limestone house was scheduled for demolition they secured funds to dismantle the two-story structure and move it to a new riverside location behind the Witte Museum.

The second house to be moved was the first public school house in San Antonio that was in use in 1801. The owner was José Francisco Ruiz, one of two native Texans to sign the Texas Declaration of Independence. The house, made from plastered stone, was carefully reconstructed on the Museum grounds in 1943.

The home of Celso Navarro was the third historic house moved to the Witte Museum campus. Angel Navarro, ancestor of the owner, was an immigrant from Corsica in 1731 and became the Spanish Alcade, or mayor, of San Antonio in 1790. The house, constructed of plastered cut limestone was moved to the Witte campus in 1948. 

Two log cabins were built on the Witte campus during the 1940s to show how Texans lived in the 1800s. They were furnished and have been used in educational programs since their construction.

Changing Times

1960 marked a major change for the Witte Museum. Quillin worked with designers to increase the size of the Museum by 60% and to create a radical new entry. The “modern” Witte Museum was dedicated in November of 1960. Shortly after the opening founding Director Ellen Schultz Quillin retired, assured that the Witte Museum was grounded in the community with fine collections and a bright future.

The Middle Years

The Museum once again expanded with improved art galleries and historic exhibits in the 1960s. The McFarlin Jewel Room opened in 1961, and the Piper Wing was opened in 1962. During the decade one of the Witte Museum’s most important galleries was opened, the Lone Star Hall of Wildlife and Ecology.

Through the 1970s an important focus on decorative arts was laid by longtime curator Cecilia Steifeldt. Steinfeldt curated exhibitions and wrote several important books “Early Texas Furniture and Decorative Arts” and “Texas Folkart- One Hundred Years of the Southwestern Tradition”.

Through the next thirty years the Witte Museum brought in numerous traveling exhibits and continued to create important exhibits and publish books from the Witte Museum collections. From handmade Texas furniture to cowboys up the trail, exhibits filled the galleries of the Witte Museum using still growing collections.

Several major exhibitions were added to the Witte Museum, including Texas Wild and Ancient Texans, both installed in the 1980s.

The Split

In 1989, the San Antonio Museum of Art, also part of the San Antonio Museum Association that operated the Witte Museum, split from the Association to form its own entity at the old Lone Star Brewery, where it has operated since the 1970s, with focus on world art, including Roman, Egyptian and Modern American Art Galleries. The Witte Museum in turn focused work on regional history, art and Texas natural history and science.

Under the leadership of Witte Director Mark Lane and Curator Bruce Shackelford, the exhibition, Thundering Hooves: 500 Years of Horse Culture in the Americas, opened at the Witte to critical acclaim in 1994. The exhibition traveled throughout the United States. With that exhibition, the gallery theater program was initiated, including Vaquero Y Cowboy and the Longhorn Connection.

The H-E-B Science Treehouse opened in the 1997 creating a science center for the ever-growing numbers of school children visiting the Witte under the direction of Director of Public Programs Mimi Quintanilla. Interactive exhibits demonstrating basic science and physics were installed in a structure designed by LakeFlato looking over the San Antonio River.

The New Witte

Marise McDermott was appointed as President and CEO of the Witte Museum in 2004 to usher in a new era of growth for the Witte Museum. Under McDermott the Witte Museum has made great strides in expanding the facility and continuing the standards set by Ellen Quillin for the original Witte Museum. In 2012 the Robert J. and Helen C. Kleberg South Texas Heritage Center opened in the historic Centennial building next to the original Witte Museum. The facility stands as a permanent home for exhibits of the history and art of Texas utilizing the latest museum practices and technology.

McDermott led the transformation of the H-E-B Science Treehouse into the H-E-B Body Adventure that opened in 2014 as the first interactive health experience in the United States.

The Witte also opened the B. Naylor Morton Research and Collections Center in 2014 to display the more than 300,000 artifacts in visible storage, as well as offer space for scholars, archivists and school children to have close encounters with the still growing collection.

In 2016 the The Mays Family Center opened serving as a multi-purpose exhibition and special events center spanning 19,000 square-feet. 

The New Witte Museum and the Zachry Family Acequia Garden opened in 2017 with a new H-E-B Lantern, Valero Great Hall, Naylor Family Dinosaur Gallery, McLean Family Texas Wild Gallery and Kittie West Nelson Ferguson People of the Pecos Gallery, all with accompany LABS for school children and families.

For more information about the historic Witte Museum Campus, please see the Texas Public Archaeology Network project here on the History and Development of the Witte Museum.

The Witte Museum receives operations support from