The public rarely visited natural history museums before the early 1900s. Collections remained the realm of scholars and wealthy patrons. Perusing the Cabinets of Curiosities exhibit at Waco’s new Mayborn Museum, I felt as if I’d sneaked into just such a private museum. Displays overflow with eye-catching items, such as a humpback whale’s skull, rare bird eggs, the cross-section of a redwood tree, and the skeleton of a flying fox bat. Dark-stained display cases contain artifacts without labels. In private museums, after all, scholarly visitors should already be “in the know.”
The Mayborn created this throwback exhibit to show how museums have evolved—from an elite, private domain to a nexus of public learning. The lion’s share of the $23 million, 143,000-square-foot Mayborn complex shows where more museums are headed: to interactive and hands-on exhibits in which visitors are participants, not mere spectators.
Dedicated last year at Baylor University, the Mayborn is one of Texas’ newest museums. But it incorporates the state’s oldest continuously operating museum, Baylor’s Strecker Museum. In fact, the Mayborn integrates three Baylor museums—the Strecker (natural history collections dating from the 1850s), the Ollie Mae Moen Discovery Center (children’s hands-on “play and learn” rooms), and the Gov. Bill and Vara Daniel Historic Village (15 structures from the 1880s to 1910). The museum also serves as a learning lab for students in Baylor’s Museum Studies Program.
The Mayborn’s entryway is impressive, with tall white columns, red brick walls, and an 83-foot-high domed rotunda—all emulating the Georgian architecture of Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello.
Beneath the dome, I tagged along with a group of preschoolers headed for the 16 rooms of the museum’s hands-on Jeanes Discovery Center. The giggling youngsters explored subjects ranging from bubbles to trains to recycling. Some kids made a beeline for the People of the World Room, where they donned pint-size costumes of various cultures. Some settled into the Pioneer Room, handling early-day chores, such as washing clothes on a washboard or weaving cloth on a loom. A few helped a museum staffer feed a box turtle. Others videotaped a make-believe weather forecast in a mock TV station.
I moseyed into the heart of the museum’s natural and cultural history offerings—the Strecker Collection, named for early Baylor University museum curator John K. Strecker. A casual tour of the exhibits offers a glance at life in Central Texas from prehistory to the 20th Century. For deeper delving, the displays also offer computerized work stations with hours of information on the region’s geology, geography, and ecology.
In the Hall of Natural History, the fossilized remains and life-size model of a pliosaur show how the 28-foot-long, flippered marine reptile survived when an ancient sea covered the area 95 million years ago. Nearby, a 12-foot fossilized protostega (a relative youngster, at 70 million years old) is one of the largest turtles ever found in North America.
Walk-through dioramas depict diverse Texas ecosystems. A replica limestone cave boasts realistic stalactites and stalagmites. An imitation forest sports taxidermy specimens of black bear, gray fox, mountain lion, and barred owl surrounded by woods and bird sounds.
Other dioramas contrast early Central Texas homes—a Waco Indian grass hut, a Comanche Indian tipi, a Norwegian immigrant rock house, and a pioneer log cabin.
An even more realistic look at pioneer life awaits on 13 acres behind the Mayborn, at the Gov. Bill and Vara Daniel Historic Village. The village features 15 period structures portraying life in a late- 19th-Century farming community. In the cotton planter’s home, the dining room sits ready for yuletide, with a festive table set and a decorated Christmas tree in the corner. In the one-room schoolhouse, simple benches and a teacher’s desk stand around a pot-bellied, wood-burning stove. In the general store, necessities—food staples, cast-iron cookware, patent medicines—share counter space with luxuries like a hand mirror and a gold pocket-watch.
My favorite Mayborn exhibit, Waco Mammoth Experience, showcases one of Baylor’s most prestigious holdings. Five miles from campus lies the site (discovered in 1978) of the world’s largest known concentration of prehistoric mammoths dying in the same natural event. Some 68,000 years ago, at least two dozen Columbian mammoths died there, trapped in an ancient mud slide. The Mayborn re-creates that event by exhibiting the casts of two sets of mammoth bones as found at the site. Dramatically displayed beneath a thick glass floor lie a young mammoth and, beside it, an adult bull that may have died trying to save the juvenile. Standing over the intertwined remains, I watched the exhibit’s booming sight-and-sound video, which shows how the animals became trapped. As if swept away in a time machine, I felt somehow connected to those long-extinct creatures and their struggle to survive.
That one museum moment alone made my visit to the Mayborn worthwhile.
The Mayborn Museum Complex is at 1300 S. University Parks Dr. (take I-35 Exit 335-B east for one-half mile). Hours: Mon-Sat 10-5 (Thu till 8 p.m.), Sun 1-5. Admission: $6, $5 age 65 and older, $4 ages 18 mos.-12. A traveling exhibit on display through Aug. 14 features gems and minerals (including a 2,200-pound quartz crystal cluster from Hot Springs, Arkansas, and lapis lazuli from Afghanistan) from the Duval Collection, on loan from the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Write to One Bear Place # 97154, Waco 76798-7154; 254/710-1110; www.MaybornMuseum.com.