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Wittliff Collections: Exploring the Galleries

Written by Nola McKey.

The Texas Music Collection currently displays a songbook that Willie Nelson created when he was 11 years old. (Photo by Kevin Stillman)

To fully appreciate the diverse offerings of The Wittliff Collections, visitors first need to know that the handsome, 4,080-square-foot archive has two major components—the Southwestern Writers Collection and the Southwestern & Mexican Photography Collection. The repository has grown substantially since it was established in 1986, and today preserves works of many of the region’s important writers, filmmakers, and musicians, as well as artifacts such as storyboards from the King of the Hill TV series.

One of the highlights of the Writers Collection is a room devoted to the Lonesome Dove miniseries based on Larry McMurtry’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. The Lonesome Dove Collection ranges from props (the Hat Creek Cattle sign) to costumes (a pair of boots worn by Tommy Lee Jones as Woodrow F. Call). The Writers Collection also serves as a home for the Texas Music Collection, which includes a fiddle played by Bob Wills and a songbook handmade by Willie Nelson as a child.

The Southwestern & Mexican Photography Collection, established in 1996, complements the literary archives. It includes photographs from the 19th Century to the present, and emphasizes fine-art prints produced using traditional darkroom techniques. The collection’s holdings of modern and contemporary images from Mexico comprise the largest archive of this type in the nation.

Besides the Wittliff Collections’ role as a gallery, the institution is important for other reasons. “The archive serves as a research facility and creative center, and we host university students as well as visiting scholars from all over the world,” says Assistant Curator Steven L. Davis. “We also publish two book series, primarily with the University of Texas Press. Our Southwestern Writers Collection Series is devoted to books that highlight the region’s writers and our shared literary heritage. In the Southwestern & Mexican Photography Collection Series, we publish books by acclaimed photographers that showcase our major photography holdings.”

Now that the Wittliff Collections’ yearlong renovation and expansion is complete, the archive has room to host as many as four photography exhibits simultaneously, to better reflect its holdings of more than 15,000 prints by some 150 artists.

“The expansion also allows us to host multiple classes, and we’re much better situated for public events now,”says Davis. “We’ve enlarged the Reading Room, which means more scholars can conduct their research. The new spaces also include state-of-the-art sound, lighting, and projection equipment, enabling us to make the most of new technology.” In short, with more space, the Wittliff Collections can do an even better job of celebrating the distinctive “spirit of place” found in Texas and the Southwest.

See related: Sharing a Spirit of Place

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