- Building an Ark for Texas: The Evolution of a Natural History Museum by Walt Davis
The landscape of Texas museums has been shaped by larger-than-life [End Page 116] characters, regional interests, political squabbling, and Texas exceptionalism while simultaneously benefitting from visionary leaders, extraordinary private generosity and the steadfast dedication of communities, museum workers, educators, and visitors. Most of the individual, institutional histories of these interlocking forces remain unwritten, but in this highly readable volume, Walt Davis provides an important corrective to that omission. In eighteen chapters organized into three parts, “War of Extermination,” “Building the Ark,” and “Becoming the Perot,” he captures nine decades of the Dallas Museum of Natural History (DMNH), now the Perot Museum of Science and Nature, and its origins. Davis brings his personal perspective as a seasoned museum veteran and as a DMNH staff member who for more than twenty-five years directly experienced much of the change he traces. Drawing on interviews with key leaders, current and former staff and institutional archival records, Davis charts the transformation of the museum through the eyes of first-hand experience distilled with research and reflection. It is this perspective that brings this organizational biography to life, from the harrowing opening description of trapped museum staff in a flooding South Texas cave to the meticulous details of creating accurate plant leaves and artfully rendered backgrounds for habitat groups.
Davis begins by situating the origins of the museum as a response to the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century decimation of Texas bison, deer, and bird populations. In articulating the need to preserve a record of Texas flora and fauna before it was completely lost, early naturalist organizers turned to the methods and approaches embodied in great natural history research museums to envision an educational organization for Dallas. The 1936 Texas Centennial celebration provided the funding and momentum to open the museum in Fair Park as a unit of the Dallas Park Department. Davis traces changes in museum leadership and the accompanying shifts in institutional focus that shaped staffing, educational programming, building renovations, field collecting, exhibit plans, and ultimately privatization under the Dallas Museum of Natural History Association. He deftly interweaves the background histories of individual museum staff such as Granville Bruce and Hal Kirby in order to more fully frame the talents and expertise that shaped the institution. Throughout, Davis draws the reader into the highs and lows of the tempo, energy and excitement at DMNS, and this is nowhere more compelling than in his recounting of how the museum brought the blockbuster exhibition Ramses II to Dallas in 1989. His unique behind-the-scenes retelling of the contract negotiations, the preparations, and the public response captures the blockbuster mania of the 1980s while acknowledging its failure to create the lasting impact sought by so many host museums.
We are fortunate that the transformation of the DMNH into the Perot Museum prompted Davis to undertake this project. It is in many ways a [End Page 117] reclamation, a re-claiming of time and place and the fervor for environmental education and scientific research for the public good presented in the museums of our largest cities. Although this is a single institutional biography, it more broadly tracks the changes and directional shifts seen in natural history museums in the twentieth and early twenty-first century and in so doing, charts the foundation for the success and the challenges posed as this museum and others strive to keep the ark afloat.