Waco Chat

Charlie Walter

By Kevin Tankersley

Director of Mayborn Museum Complex

“People come here because they’re excited to learn.”

In 2018, we started an exhibit master plan, and it was all about what’s next. We worked with a group out of Santa Fe that’s an exhibit design firm and over about an eight-month period, brainstormed about what should we do. Ultimately, our goal is to renovate the whole natural history wing, but one of the ideas that we came up with during that process was putting mammoths out front. We thought that it would really highlight the museum’s research in that area over the last 35 years or so, but it would also be a real stamp for the museum. When you drive by our building now, it’s a glorious Baylor building, but you wouldn’t know what’s in here. They’ll know now. As people drive by and see the three bronze mammoths out front, they’ll go, ‘That’s the museum.’ And just as importantly, we knew that the mammoths would complement all the wonderful art up and down University Parks. Hopefully, they’ll be as iconic as the cattle drive scene (at the Suspension Bridge) for Waco.

The mammoths at Waco Mammoth National Monument tell a story that’s not told anywhere else in the fossil record. It’s a story of a nursery herd of mammoths that somehow got scared and the adults surrounded the juveniles and they perished. The science is still going back and forth on was it a flood? Was it a drought? What was it that made this happen? So scientifically, that nursery herd is very unique. We found 26 mammoths right here in Waco. That’s rare to find that many. And now with the National Park Service — our partner of five years — we have a full-time paleontologist, Dr. Lindsey Yann, and she’s beginning to unravel the story of the mammoths and paint a bigger picture by looking at the associated fossils. It wasn’t just mammoths. There were camels, saber-toothed cats. There were fish and turtles and birds. They’re starting to paint that whole story.
It’s going to be a much fuller story as the
research unfolds.

When I first came here eight-and-a-half years ago, my real estate agent, my mortgage broker, the pest control person who came by and looked at our house, they all said, ‘We’re members.’ So, I knew very clearly my job was not to screw up a good thing. People love this museum, and I’ve constantly had that message, but I can also tell you over the last eight-and-a-half years, we very purposefully have grown. We’ve become accredited by the American Alliance of Museums, which guarantees our community that we meet the highest standards.

We’re now affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution. There’s a rigorous process to get that. But I can also probably most importantly tell you our attendance is up 50 percent over eight years ago. Our membership is up 176 percent over that time. We have over 4,000 family members from this area. We’re now in charge of Baylor’s lifelong learning program, this wonderful program for senior adults. We’re kind of the backbone for the regional science fair.

People come here because they’re excited to learn. They’ll get here and run to the dinosaur gallery. Some of them will run up to our bubble room and play with bubbles or go look at light or sound waves up in a room there. To have a museum that’s this broad and has the breadth of the Mayborn Museum at a university in a town the size of Waco, Texas, is very unusual. We’re very fortunate in the community to have a museum this large.

Charlie Walter has been director of the Mayborn Museum Complex for eight-and-a-half years. He’s worked in museums for more than 35 years, with stops at The DoSeum in San Antonio; New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science in Albuquerque; and the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History. He also teaches in the Museum Studies department at Baylor University. And while the Mayborn celebrated its 20th anniversary with a gala last month, its history goes back more than 100 years, to its beginnings as the Baylor University Museum.

On a Wednesday afternoon in early May, the first 90-degree day of the year, Walter joined a bunch of folks on the front steps of the Mayborn to witness the delivery of life-size bronze sculptures of three mammoths, which were crafted by sculptor Tom Tischler, who was also on hand as two tractor-trailers eased their way into the Mayborn driveway. Tischler grew up in Austin and now works from his studio in Perth, Australia.