Charlie Walter became director of the Mayborn Museum Complex in 2015 and maintains an ambitious standard for making it better than he found it. During his time in Waco, the museum has received national accreditation, hosted a blockbuster exhibit, began updates on the discovery wing and is planning a major renovation of the natural history wing over the next 10 to 15 years.
Walter has accrued more than 30 years of experience in museum administration and cultivates strong relationships with his colleagues at major museums across the country. Walter and Baylor museum studies student Emily Starr sat down to discuss his vast achievements in such a short period of time and his hopes for the Mayborn’s role in the Waco community in the future. Walter unveiled plans for the renovation of the natural history wing, discussed the success of the “Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition” and introduced the dinosaur fossils coming to the museum in the next year or two.
WACOAN: What brought you to the Mayborn?
Walter: I was in San Antonio [as the chief operations officer] opening the DoSeum. My plans were to be there for 10 years, and a search firm that [Baylor] University had hired for this position called me. They knew my skill set and knew what was here. I came up here, and over those two days I met people across the whole campus, and I went home and told my wife, ‘I loved everything about it.’
The thing that really brought me here was the Strecker museum’s 100-year-old natural history museum combined with the children’s museum. Those two aspects are things I’ve done my whole career, and the fact that we had a historic village — which is in my opinion [its own] outdoor exhibit — I was so amazed and impressed that a university had this kind of support for this kind of museum.
I worked in student activities for five years [at Texas A&M and Southern Methodist University], and I loved university life. But my undergraduate [degree from Texas A&M] had a minor in museum studies, so when I had the opportunity to go to a museum, I did that. In my college career, I spent two seasons with the National Park Service. There’s a national park service partner here, there’s a student activities partner here, this is a university, this is a museum. If you look at my resume, it just stacked up with what was here. The last thing I’ll say [about that] is that I really love Waco and the Waco community.
WACOAN: What’s been your favorite part about being director so far?
Walter: Working with the staff to take the museum to the next level. The previous director did a great job here, but I knew just looking at it, there’s so much more we could do. For example, we’re a museum studies program here, we’re a significant museum, but [at that time we were] not accredited. Being accredited is a stamp of approval to assure your community that what we’re doing here is of the highest standards. That’s an example of taking that to the next level.
The other thing would be the exhibit base. The exhibits had not changed in 14 years. The museum had started looking at the possibility of doing work, but no plans had been set. In our first year, we renovated four of the discovery rooms in the children’s wing, and we immediately started the next wing. We started the [Design Den] makerspace because it was the right thing to do. Those things are so important educationally; it’s a different kind of experience.
We’re doing things now that we weren’t doing four years ago. We’re working with Prosper Waco, supporting their work with Family Science Night events, early childhood events and after-school events. We have a new [monthly] Teen Science Cafe. I knew about [the Teen Science Cafe] national program, and when I got here, I asked the staff to plug into that program. We brought that program here, and we have a great group here now.
I knew about another national effort called the Portal to the Public. It was an effort funded by the National Science Foundation to support researchers who are trying to get their research out to the general public. So we’ve [brought that program] down, and we’ve worked with over 100 professors and graduate students here.
The last one that I’ll mention is that we’ve been able to connect to a group called the Science Museum Exhibit Collaborative. So [I] went to New York last month, and we had a meeting with the American Museum of Natural History. Sitting across the table [are representatives from] the American Museum of Natural History, the Field Museum [of Natural History] in Chicago, the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. And the Perot Museum [of Nature and Science] was there, Boston Museum of Science.
Big, big museums were there, but that’s just because I knew some folks. I’d worked with them for years, and they said, ‘Well, yeah, we’d love to have a university partner.’ It’s good for our staff to be exposed. So [the Science Museum Exhibit Collaborative] is a collaborative about learning. We all go up and say something that challenged us and how we met that challenge.[I have enjoyed] helping the place grow and building the capacity of the staff because, ultimately, our goal is to build a 21st-century museum. We’re good, you know, but we want to take that next step.
WACOAN: One partnership you didn’t touch on is the partnership with the public library where library patrons can check out a museum pass to visit the Mayborn Museum or other Waco institutions. Did you start that or was that here before you?
Walter: No, we started it. It was really a staff team here that was evaluating our Free Sunday program. We were looking at a menu of options to do a better job connecting with the community.
As many as 50% of the people who came on Free Sunday didn’t know it was Free Sunday, which means they would’ve paid, which would support the museum. We were looking for an alternative, and we had a staff team look into this. They brought a number of recommendations. In this case, the goal was [to] connect with the community that needs us the most that can’t afford us. So the library program is part of that.
The other part of that is a program called Museums for All, which is a collaborative between the Institute of Museum and Library Services and the Association of Children’s Museums. It’s a program that you sign up for because you want to do a better job connecting to your community. Anybody who has an electronic benefit [transfer] card for food, assistance or anything like that can show that card at the box office, and they can get in for $1, or they can get a $10 family membership. So we started that along with the library program.
We still have a number of free days, but our goal is to really target folks who want to be here. We have over 160 of those $10 memberships now. It was a real concerted effort to do two things: we wanted to be more accessible, but we also didn’t want to give away the shop 12 days a year.
The museum has a 90-page strategic plan that we’ve put down into an executive summary, and one of four big ideas in part of that plan is to grow through earned income and development dollars. We studied other similar museums; we study the local market, and we’re looking at our operation to make sure we stay accessible. To me, accessible is like movie theater prices. Once you get to a lot of the bigger museums, like the ones I was meeting with in New York, they’re like $20-30, and we don’t want to have to do that. We want to be accessible.
But our plan also [acknowledges that] Baylor supports us very well. We don’t want that support to go down, but we need to grow. So this strategy, we call our Reach Out program, is all about being accessible through those three different ways. We have free days, we have the Museums for All program, plus we have the library passes, [which] are at all Waco and Hewitt libraries right now.
WACOAN: So I’ve heard you touch on this a little bit, but what are your hopes for the Mayborn’s engagement with the community long-term?
Walter: We want to continually improve the museum experience here to be more educational, more interactive. Our vision statement says that we want to serve our community with distinction through more creative experiences for everyone to learn and grow. What it says to me is that we need to be a dynamic environment. I hope our [Teen Science Cafe] program grows. I hope our Museums for All program grows.
We’ve done a couple grants that have not been funded, but we’re going to keep trying. In partnership with Prosper Waco, we [were] going to open some satellite tinkering spaces at community centers, so I’d love to still do that, but we need grant funding to make that happen. Some people can’t come here and we, in my opinion, need to go where the need is.
Schools are critical, but experiences outside of schools are just as critical. We know we do some things very well, and we have the coolest stuff to learn with, through our artifacts and specimens. If we can do more of that across the community, it strengthens the entire fabric of our community.
We just opened an exhibit with SpaceX. That’s a perfect example of what we’d like to do more of. SpaceX does some of the coolest things in the world, and they’re right here in our community. We partnered with them to, what I call ‘extrovert’ that. It’s not only about the coolest science behind that, but here [are] people who will talk to you from this community who have different degrees, [who are] Baylor graduates, who work there now. It’s a matter of showing young people a path. Here’s this person, here’s what they did, and now they work at SpaceX. So [a young person] could think ‘Oh, I could work at SpaceX!’
We know museums can provide that spark for lifelong learning, and that’s what we want here. We want people to come here and have an amazing time with their family and friends, but we want them to leave with that spark. That spark is a bit of an agitation.
In our new exhibit we’re working on, called Backyard Ecology, there’s an area called the Brazos River Area, and we hope it’ll really engage people learning more about the Brazos River. In this exhibit, we’re going to have a sign that says ‘If you like this exhibit, go to the Cameron Park Zoo’ because they have a cool Brazos River exhibit. We hope to point them in different directions. We provide the spark, and that’s our mission statement.
We want to engage our visitors for lifelong learning around our exhibits, programs and our collections, so everything we do needs to get back to that mission statement. We know it’s a two-hour experience, but we hope that spark then leads them to the library to go get a book, to the Cameron Park Zoo, to the mammoth site. That’s what we want: to grow with the community.
WACOAN: I know the museum is renovating a lot of the exhibit spaces, but for someone who doesn’t know, can you give a summary of that will look like?
Walter: By the end of the summer, we’ll have renovated over half of the discovery wing. The latest part will be four of our rooms that are turning into the Backyard Ecology exhibit. It’s an exhibit that combines live animals, museum natural history specimens and hands-on activities to teach the community about the natural world around us.
We just finished a master plan for the natural history wing because the natural history wing has not been touched. So over the next four or five years we’ll begin the fundraising for this. What we hope to do is to really create immersive places — like our mission statement says — using cool specimens and hands-on activities. Our natural history wing should be just as immersive and as fun and as exciting as our children’s wing, but it should be designed for an older audience. [We want to] engage people in the children’s wing, but then they can come over here and have a really immersive experience. We worked with a company out of Santa Fe to do this work —[Leads Starr to a conference room with several mock-ups of the future exhibit spaces, including the outside of the Mayborn with a mammoth sculpture in the front.] Walter: We want to have an iconic element out front that says museum — mammoths! I want to continue that strong partnership with the mammoth site because the museum started the mammoth site. The research started here, the collection is up here and we want to keep that connection strong.
As you go through here, you see our story is still interpreting Central Texas. The story is similar, but the difference would be here at the Comanche Teepee [in the Texas Lifeways exhibit] you get to go in and you’ll sit and have a Native American tell you his or her story. We’ll have this bridge, which is the Suspension Bridge from the 1890s, that will take you out to the village. We want it to be more immersive.
One of my favorite examples is you’ll go in this cave. Well we already have a cave, but in our [new] cave there will be a bat emergence every 15 minutes. So the lights will get lower, and you’ll [hear the bats] and maybe there will be a strobe light to show the bats coming out. We want everything to be more immersive.
We’ll add some dinosaur [fossils] because the trackways that we have now are from a dinosaur called Acrocanthosaurus, which was one of the ones up near Glen Rose, and it’s part of the story we don’t tell here. We talk about the marine specimens that were right here in Waco, but we said our interpretive strategy should be [a radius of] 200 miles. Glen Rose is right up there, and everybody loves dinosaurs, so we’ll have that.
We’ll still have a very active traveling exhibits program because even with this kind of change, you still need to add breadth to your program. This will tell the story of Central Texas in a very hands-on way, but we’ll still have a very active traveling exhibits program.
Here’s just an example of one of the things we hope to do. We have had mammoth bones sitting up there in their plaster jackets for 30 years. We’ve had some park interns come in and begin to prep those, but if we can do some more preparatory work right in front of our public, that will just bring it to life more. So those are some of the things we’re doing and, again, [we’re] not getting rid of some of the iconic things like the mammoth — that’s the most popular thing here right now — but making it more immersive and more hands-on. This is probably a five- or 10-year project, so that’ll be a huge redo of the entire natural history wing.
WACOAN: I know you have roles with the Texas Association of Museums board and the American Alliance of Museums accreditation visiting committee. How have those roles helped you in your role at the Mayborn?
Walter: My job is to bring the best thinking in the country, or the world, here. You can’t do that sitting in Waco. I believe in service to the field, so by serving the museum community and trying to help the Texas Association of Museums be a stronger association, I work with people all around the state, and I learn from them. I do it to serve, but there’s always more you learn.
I’m a big believer in collaborative networks. That’s why I joined this collaborative called the Science Museum Exhibit Collaborative that’s with all of these big museums. At the same time, I just joined the Small Museum Executive Director Collaborative that are museums more along the $2-3 million [operating budget] range, which is what we are. As we all wrestle with how to run these things, we learn things. By connecting to people who are doing this all across the country, you’re learning from models everywhere, and you’re bringing that learning back home.
That’s how I learned about the Portal to the Public Network. When we decided to open the Design Den, I sent two staff to the Exploratorium [in San Francisco] because the people who wrote the book on tinkering were there. I was with them in a project years ago, so those relationships, I was able to build through service, come home and help us learn here. To be a learning organization, part of your organization’s structure is your network. We can’t afford everything under one roof.[There] are things that you learn from these relationships, and that’s what I think my role is. Baylor deserves a world-class museum, and they have a world-class museum. My role is to keep it there. [The Mayborn has] talked about 21st-century learning, and a lot of that is hands-on, more connected to the community, bilingual labels, all those things that make you more connected to your community.
Another thing is the Baylor community. One of [the museum studies] graduate students just helped open up an exhibit in the anthropology department. Instead of just long, boring hallways, it’s exhibits as you go down to classes and labs. It looks like a museum. We are talking with the [Student Union Building,] and they’re talking about doing new exhibits in the student center.
This isn’t about me, it’s about the whole staff. One of my staff, Trey [Crumpton], came into my office and said, ‘You know, Baylor is turning 175 next year, and we need to do an exhibit.’ I said, ‘OK, put together a concept, and let’s see what we can do.’ Hughes Dillard called [the Baylor development office] and said, ‘I’d like to support some type of program or exhibit for Baylor’s 175th.’ He made a substantial donation, and now, we’re working on a major exhibit that’ll finally be a major Baylor statement. We’ve done other minor things, but they’ve been more temporary, and this will be more permanent. We’re looking at more and more ways we can support the university because that’s who we are, but when I came, you wouldn’t know that walking down the hall.
WACOAN: Speaking of engaging the community, I know from personal experience that everyone was really excited about the Titanic exhibit. Can you talk a little about the process of bringing that here and why that was exciting for you?
Walter: The Titanic exhibit started with a conversation with Mrs. [Sue] Mayborn, whose name is on our building. When I first came here, I went to visit Mrs. Mayborn, and I said, ‘Mrs. Mayborn, is there something at the Mayborn that you’d like to see us do that we haven’t done?’ She said, ‘Oh I’d like to see a blockbuster exhibit!’
So on my drive back from Temple, [I thought] ‘Titanic’! It’s known wherever it goes to bring in big crowds, it’s a well-done exhibit, it’s such a dramatic story. We started that process, and it took at least two years to get it on the calendar because it tours and it’s booked everywhere.
Then the museum did a lot of work to get ready for ‘Titanic.’ We moved the entry desk back, and I was here on a number of weekends when the crowds would’ve been standing out in the rain or the heat if that hadn’t been there. We had to put in a new ticketing system that allowed for online ticketing. On those weekends that we were the busiest, [up to] 40% of our tickets were from online. People coming from Austin and Dallas wanted to make sure they had a ticket, so they’d go online.
We did a gala; we’d never done a gala. We had 400 people come and just celebrate the opening of ‘Titanic.’ We did some lectures, and we partnered with [Baylor] law school and had Titanic on Trial. We took the trial folks out into the exhibit and looked at rivets, believe it or not, that were in the exhibit that are part of one of the questions about liability that were in the Titanic sinking. They were like, ‘There are actually rivets here!’ It helped us connect to the community in that way.
Our attendance grew over 30% and, importantly, growth through earned revenue. We expect to have a tremendous amount of earned revenue at the end of the year that is going to be invested in the Backyard Ecology exhibit.
I had people in the community asking what’s next. We’re working on [adding more for adults] now because a lot of our exhibits are for families. ‘Titanic’ was a family exhibit, but it was more skewed toward the adults, and we’re just looking for other opportunities.
I think our next big exhibit on the ‘Titanic’ scale, it’s with the American Museum of Natural History and it’s called ‘The World’s Largest Dinosaurs.’ We’re going to bring that into Waco. Kids will love it, but I think adults will love it as well because it’s from the American Museum. That’ll be something we’re working on over the next years. The traveling exhibits we generally have to work two to three years out.
WACOAN: So you’ve done a lot of partnerships and bringing the ‘Titanic,’ which was awesome, but what do you consider your biggest triumph in the last four years?
Walter: I’d say empowering the staff to do more, to stretch, to serve the community at a higher level, to develop new exhibits and programs, to reach out to the community in broader ways.
It really is the staff who do this. It’s not my [strategic] plan, our staff did it. We talked to people, we surveyed members, we have focus groups, and we put all that thinking, and a staff plan carried that. Now a staff team has done that and over 90% of this plan is done.
It has been a matter of empowering the staff to stretch, to reach out, to try new things, to work more collaboratively together, and I would compare this staff to any in the country. I’ve seen them, and I’ve been there, and this staff is stellar. The opportunity to have the staff grow, which is the primary force behind the museum growing, has been my greatest joy.
As staff come in with ideas, [I want] to embrace those ideas and look at them from different sides and see what we can do. Everything we’re doing is in alignment with our strategic plan, but part of what we’re doing — and part of what we do every year — should be new. We shouldn’t just do more of the same; we should be trying new things. From Design Den to the Teen Science Cafe, to hosting a blockbuster exhibit, those are all new things here, and it’s helped the staff grow.
I think our future is growth … with the goal of making this museum a 21st-century learning environment that matches any museum you’d walk into in the country. And we’re close! I think the ideas are here. It’ll just take some time to catch up and make those happen. But again, the Mayborn Museum will match programmatically [and in regard to the] exhibit base with any of the museums in the country, and hopefully even more so. What’s next?