Today’s post is written by Maryellen Mathews and Grace Kelly, two of our HMNS volunteers. They write about the history of the museum and volunteer guild. For more information about HMNS history, click here.
Origins of the Museum
The Houston Museum and Scientific Society was founded in 1909 “to establish and maintain a free institution for the people, for education, and for science.” In 1914, it persuaded the City of Houston to purchase part of the collection assembled by naturalist Henry P. Attwater (for whom the Attwater’s greater prairie chicken is named).
Philanthropist Sigmund Westheimer purchased the remainder of the Attwater collection in 1922 and donated it to the City of Houston. By 1943, the Museum collection, including the donated collection of John E.T. Milsaps and others, comprised some 17,000 items.
The collection was originally housed in the City Auditorium, then the Central Library and finally in a building on the grounds of the Houston Zoo (where the Tropical Bird House is now located). In 1946, a non-profit corporation, the Museum of Natural History of Houston, was formed to manage the collection.
In 1959, the Museum negotiated a ninety-nine year lease with the City of Houston for its present location. The Museum received a gift of $250,000 from philanthropist Burke Baker, which formed the basis of the planetarium named in his honor. In 1960, the name was changed to the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Construction of the Museum at the new location began in 1964 and was completed in 1969.
The Founding of the Guild
Rosalee Smith Maffitt was a member of the Junior League of Houston who worked as a volunteer at the Museum. When she began, the Museum was still located on the grounds of the Houston Zoo. She envisioned a museum with the potential to become a renowned institution for the presentation of science to the general public and as a source of significant scientific research. Her goal was to create a core of interested people who would volunteer at and support the Museum in order to bring it to the forefront of local attention.
On March 16, 1950, at the Cohen House on the campus of Rice Institute, Mrs. Maffitt, together with the then Museum Director, John Vines, and thirty-nine ladies met to discuss their goals and strategy for improving the Museum. The name that they gave their organization was the Museum of Natural History Guild. At that meeting, a list of Museum departments was created, each with its own chairman, co-chair and agenda. Each department was given specific assignments to be completed by the next meeting. Each member was to select one specific project and one general project before leaving that meeting and dues were set at one dollar per year. Mr. Vines also solicited suggestions on ways to improve the Museum.
Contracts were made with the local and neighborhood newspapers to carry notices of summer classes for children. Announcements of these classes were also broadcast on the radio.
Increasing Public Awareness
To increase interest in the Museum by the Houston public, speeches were made to civic organizations and schools, and posters were given to municipal departments, libraries and schools.
The Ways and Means Committee had several money-making projects, including selling ant houses, fish bowls and engagement calendars for 1951. They also held a very successful used clothing sale. According to the Museum newsletter, the Guild raised $2,050, which went to pay the Museum teacher’s salary (the teacher was paid $290 each month).
The Guild also produced its first copy of Nature Notes from the Gulf Coast States, edited by Mrs. Maffitt, a quarterly publication that was provided free to Museum members and was financed by advertisements, single issue sales and subscriptions. Each issue included information about how to become a member of the Museum.
Dr. J. Brian Eby, Museum Board President, wrote in 1951 that the Guild was making valuable contributions to the Museum and urged that their work be both continued and expanded.
Volunteer Committee Chairman, Mrs. Edward Pearson, found a supply of dependable, steady workers, half from the Junior League, who volunteered to supplement the Museum staff. A letter was also sent to the HISD School Board requesting $1,000 to help pay for the teacher at the Museum.
In May 1951, Guild members appeared at a City Council meeting to request that the city’s contribution to the Museum be increased from $9,000 to $12,000 per annum; however, the City Council felt that there were far more pressing issues, such as street maintenance and the building of storm drains.
Expanding the Guild Mission
The Guild focused on simple, easy ways to make the Museum more attractive. At the Guild’s suggestion, the Museum created a summer class schedule that allowed parents to pre-register their children. An immediate objective of the Guild was a new classroom addition, which would expand the children’s programs and serve in the summer as a movie theater for nature movies. This addition at the zoo building was the first step toward the ultimate goal of a new facility.
In 1953, the Trustees asked the Guild to take over the running of the Museum Curio Shop. Its name was changed to the Nature Shop. The Nature Shop offered materials and books that related to natural science; its existence also spread the word that the Museum was an interesting place to visit. The first Nature Fair was held near Christmas that year and a $300 profit was realized. In that year, the Museum had 174 new members and 280 renewals, plus the Guild had twenty-three new members.
Interested in joining the Guild and volunteering at HMNS? Click here to learn more.
A Note About the Sources:
This installment relies on a Guild history written by Rosalee Smith Maffitt and expanded upon by Mrs. Ann King Wilson. Mrs. Maffitt kept a chronicle of its development from its inception until the 1958/1959 season. As the Guild was approaching its twenty-fifth anniversary, Mrs. Nelson (with the help of Mrs. Moody P. Pearson) researched Guild Board minutes, General Guild meeting notes, as well as newspaper articles to complete the Guild history to 1974. Grace Kelly (Guild President 1992-1993) and I began our quest to bring the Guild history up to date two years ago by again reading the Guild archives and gathering newspaper articles. Please look for more of the history of the Guild soon.
Handbook of Texas Online (www.tshaonline.org)