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Traveling Texas with Nancy Deviney - September, 2005

Traveling Texas with Nancy Deviney             September 2005

There was once a place in Corpus Christi where you could take your children to see a real shrunken head and then, on the way out the door, you could “borrow” a live nutria, hamster or turtle for a week or so, much like you would check out a library book.

The Banker and I had the privilege and pleasure of keeping our three pre-school age grandchildren for a month this summer, and I know they would have loved this place.  It does still exist although the format has changed somewhat over the past 50 years. The days of shrunken heads and rent-a-hamster are long gone and have been replaced by baseball memorabilia, pirate ships and dinosaurs, just to mention a few.

Corpus Christi Museum of Science & History…

Sitting almost directly under the Harbor Bridge and practically next door to the new American Bank Center is the very modern, state-of-the-art Corpus Christi Museum of Science and History.  With over 40,000 square feet of exhibit area and more than 87,000 artifacts, it has been rated by visitors as better than the Witte Museum in San Antonio.

Exhibits include gems and minerals, ancient fossils, the interactive Children’s Wharf, Dinosaur Hall, the World of Shells, History of the Salt Water Fishing Industry, a “main street” exhibit, reptiles of South Texas, Corpus Christi history, artifacts from the Spohn and Kenedy families, a 1554 shipwreck and much more.

Many people come to the Museum to visit the replicas of the Christopher Columbus ships, and I admit that is what drew me there, too.  The tour of these ships met and exceeded my expectations, but it was the many hands-on activities for children that impressed me most.


The Shrunken Head…

Back in 1955, a group of Corpus Christi schoolteachers came up with the idea to establish a museum for children.  Their goal was to have an educational activities center featuring constantly changing exhibits about the modern-day world and to provide direction in constructive youth activities.

On June 16, 1957, this dream became a reality, and the Corpus Christi Junior Museum opened on Water Street near the site of the present-day Federal Courthouse.  It was located next door to the offices of the City Parks & Recreation Department and had just one room for exhibits.  The only other children’s museum in the Southwest at that time was located in Fort Worth.  Management from the Fort Worth facility worked closely with the founding fathers of the local Junior Museum and even sent a shrunken head from its collection for display at the grand opening.  And, the head ended up staying for six months.

Aalbert Heine assumed the position of the first Museum Director in August of 1957, serving until 1984.  Heine came to Corpus Christi from the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.  His love was natural history and today’s museum honors his work with the Aalbert Heine Wing of Natural History Exhibits.

Heine came to the United States from Holland in 1951 after being captured by the Germans during World War II and held prisoner for 18 months.

Rent-a-Hamster…

Heine’s vision was “to create a museum where you can touch things”.  During the first six months after it opened, over 25,000 visitors, mostly schoolchildren, toured the museum.  A monthly newsletter, The Pelican, was distributed, and Heine hosted a local weekly television program.  This privately funded museum operated on a shoestring budget with museum board members serving as docents and volunteers.

During the 1960s the Treasure Box program, a forerunner of today’s very popular Saturday Treasure Hunt series, was initiated with board members visiting local schools with a box full of museum exhibits.  The board member would give an explanation of the box’s contents leading to a question and answer session.  The ultimate goal of these programs was to encourage future museum visits. Judging from the admission statistics of that period, this program was certainly successful.

About the same time, in keeping with the Natural History theme, a live animal section of the Junior Museum was established.  Various creatures were donated including rabbits, ducks, turtles, hamsters and a nutria, the water-loving South American rodent that resembles a beaver.  Children could enjoy these animals at the Museum, or they could take them home for a short visit…actually borrowing them for a week or so, much like a book is borrowed from a public library.

 The current Museum continues the live animal exhibit concept, but, unfortunately, they are not available for check out.  While I was there, 14-year-old Eric Lange, a junior volunteer in the animal lab, was walking around with a live Great Plains Rat Snake draped casually around his neck.  He tried to encourage visitors to touch the snake, but I didn’t see anyone take him up on his offer.

In October of 1968, a new museum facility opened at its current location, 1900 N. Chaparral, in an area known as the Bayfront Science Park, right next to the Ship Channel.  With this new facility came a new name…Corpus Christi Museum of Science and History.  Today the Museum is a department of the City of Corpus Christi.

SEA-town…

Rick Stryker, Museum Director, and Bonnie Lisowski, Museum Director of Operations and Public Relations, were on hand to greet me the day I toured the Museum.  Rick came to the Museum in 1985 from a museum in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Bonnie has been on staff since 1992.  The Museum has undergone many changes since Rick arrived and more changes are on the way to keep up with current trends.  The area surrounding the museum may soon have a new name…..SEA-town. City fathers are considering renaming the site …SEA (Sports, Entertainment, Arts)-town… to reflect the multitude of activities in this section of Corpus Christi, including Whataburger Field, the entertainment super-complex known as the American Bank Center, the museums and the Harbor Playhouse.

Year-to-date attendance at the Museum is close to 40,000 persons with children accounting for 23 percent of these visitors.  The day I was there I saw lots of children under the age of 12, accompanied by parents and grandparents.  Museum statistics show that the average visitor stays just over two hours. 

Rick feels very strongly about presenting and preserving local history and says his favorite exhibit is the second-floor Corpus Christi History Room. I’ve heard him say more than once that his own three children grew up in Corpus Christi and went through Carroll High School but know very little about the history of the city.  He wants to make sure that the next generation does not have that same lack of experience.

The Columbus Ships…

After visiting with Rick and Bonnie, I was able to catch the 12:30 tour of the Columbus ships.  I assumed that the ships were docked in the water and was surprised and somewhat disappointed to find that they are dry-docked behind the Museum.  My disappointment, however, was short-lived once our tour guide, Dave, arrived.  He told us that he has the best job in town, and it was obvious, from his presentation, that he truly feels this way. 

The Pinta and the Santa Maria stand gracefully just outside the Museum’s back door.  The Nina is docked at a nearby downtown marina and is closed to the public.  The government of Spain built the ships to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ voyages to the New World.  They took five years to build and cost $6.5 million.  The ships were built using the same type of materials, pine and oak, as the original ships, and the nails were forged by hand.

Some people wonder why Corpus Christi was chosen as the homeport for these ships.  The ships brought Spaniards to the New World, and they influenced culture in South Texas for centuries to come, continuing even today.  Museum officials would like to someday put the ships back in the water and develop a storyline and exhibit explaining Spain’s role in shaping the Hispanic culture in this country.

Horses in Slings…

Dave, our tour guide, led us first to the Pinta, and our group of 10-12 persons found it difficult to imagine how the 46 sailors of old lived on this small ship for a month and more as they crossed the ocean.  Unfortunately, there are no known drawings of the original ships, so these replicas were designed using the few references in Columbus’ journal and what is known of ships of that time.  It is thought that these ships may be as much as one-third larger than the original ships. The Pinta replica is 74.5 feet long and 22 feet wide.

From there, we climbed the steps to the Santa Maria, the ship Columbus commanded.  Although larger (97 feet by 28 feet) than the Pinta, it, too, has the arched main deck making it almost impossible to stand straight at any point. More stairs led us to what would have been similar to the personal quarters of Columbus, complete with stained glass windows and velvet bedspread and curtains.  Approximately 40 sailors were on this ship, with some as young as ten years old.

We were told that barrels containing eight or nine tons of rocks were carried in the hold of the ship for ballast along with other barrels of dried biscuits and meats meant to last as long as two years.  Drinking water, however, was in short supply and was flavored with wine. 

The sailors slept on the open decks of the ships alongside the sheep, cows, pigs and chickens.  It is said that the horses were hung in slings the entire trip so their hooves would not damage the ship deck. 

Every American school child knows the story of Columbus and his voyage to the New World, but probably only a few are aware that he actually never got any closer to America than the Bahamas.  During the first two weeks of October each year, ship tour guides dress in period costumes to celebrate Columbus Day.

The tour of these ships and the images it will inspire are certainly worth the price of admission to the Museum.

Children’s Wharf and Treasure Hunts…

After the thought-provoking visit to the Columbus ships, I headed to the Children’s Wharf area inside the Museum and wished for my three little grandchildren.  They would have loved this large educational playroom with the two-story picture windows facing the Ship Channel where they could “fish” from the deck of a shrimp boat, learn how cows produce milk, and touch seashells and rocks and dried cow skulls. 

There are various objects to climb upon as well as puzzles and baskets of dress-up clothes and a see-through playhouse.  And, best of all, there are rows of comfortable, padded benches lining one wall where adults can sit while the children are at play.

Once the kids have exhausted the fun at the Children’s Wharf, they can move on to the Dinosaur Hall to climb on dinosaurs and use tracing paper to rub fossils.  In the Natural History wing, they can observe live reptiles in their natural habitat and maybe touch a non-poisonous snake, if they so desire.

On Saturday mornings, there is no admission charge for children, and a variety of planned activities will keep them busy for several hours.  One of the most popular is the Treasure Hunt, a scavenger hunt loosely based on the Treasure Box program of the 1960s.  Participants are given five to six printed questions, each question having the option of four answers.  Parents or grandparents may accompany the younger children.

Each question concerns an exhibit in the Museum.  The object of the game is to get the most correct answers to the questions while participating in a treasure or scavenger hunt, resulting in a prize.  And, of course, all the correct answers are found in exhibits throughout the Museum.  What a fun way to learn!

Robert Driscoll Hotel…

Two hours after I left Rick and Bonnie, I was still exploring the vast reaches of the Museum including the “main street” area that showcases the replica of Dr. Arthur Spohn’s office, the History of the Salt Water Fishing Industry and baseball memorabilia including a large poster titled, “Understanding a Baseball Scoreboard”, a lesson I’m in sore need of myself.

There are also numerous displays of bygone lanterns, lamps, cameras, typewriters and telephones, and one display that particularly got my attention…the art of ironing.  I personally spend many hours each week performing the art of ironing and consider myself somewhat of an expert.  I’m just glad that I don’t have to use the flat irons, box irons or charcoal irons that highlight that exhibit!

Being a native of Corpus Christi, I looked forward to the Corpus Christi History Room located upstairs to the right of the Children’s Wharf, and I wasn’t disappointed.  A video presents the history of the city, and there are numerous displays including General Zachary Taylor’s chair, but what caught my eye was the large stained glass panel showing a map of Corpus Christi Bay that was taken from a window of the now defunct Robert Driscoll Hotel, once located on the bluff overlooking downtown Corpus Christi.

Local philanthropist Clara Driscoll built this hotel in 1942 and named it after her late brother, Robert.  Overnight visitors to this stately hotel included Hollywood greats Tyrone Power, Mary Pickford and John Wayne.  It is said that Ms. Driscoll had a penthouse suite on the 20th floor that included 12 bathrooms.  The hotel remained open until 1970.

A Wedding aboard the Columbus Ships…

The Museum is many things to Corpus Christi including a site for frequent lectures as well as a meeting and party facility.  Weddings have been held on board the Columbus ships, and parties, receptions and barbecues have been held in the outdoor Santa Maria Plaza as well as among the indoor Museum exhibit areas.  Rooms for meetings, luncheons and conferences are also available.  Museum membership offers discounted admission and special invitations to events and exhibit openings. 

Mr. Heine’s vision of a museum where you can touch things is still very much in evidence today, and I know I’ll certainly be there with my grandchildren the next time they come to visit.  For more information about the Museum, visit the web site at www.ccmuseum.com or give them a call at 361 826-4650.

 

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