Centennial museum

El Paso’s First Museum Located Next to ‘New’ College on the Hill

By on July 20, 2014

Editor’s note: The following is part of a weekly series commemorating The University of Texas at El Paso’s Centennial Celebration in 2014.

El Paso’s elected and community leaders wanted to create a museum since the early 1900s, but it took state funding and a different 100-year anniversary to make the dream come true.

In 1934, the state legislature created the Texas Commission of Control for Texas Centennial Celebrations to disburse funds around the state to recognize the 100th anniversary of the state’s independence from Mexico in 1836. El Paso officials lobbied for and received $50,000 from the group for a monument. Locals shared a few ideas on how to use the money, but one that stuck was a museum.

After some debate, the decision was made to build a new museum on 15.8 acres of land outside the city limits next to the Texas College of Mines (TCM), which today is The University of Texas at El Paso. The choice was made after TCM President Dossie Wiggins assured community officials that the college would operate and maintain the building.

The project broke ground June 4, 1936, and the Bhutanese-style building was dedicated April 23, 1937, quickly becoming a source of civic pride. The three-story, 6,700-square-foot structure opened with exhibits of local artists, natural history and archaeology, and collections of local flora and fauna.

The museum, which now is the Centennial Museum and Chihuahuan Desert Gardens, offered the community of 131,000 a window into the world. El Pasoans eager to help the museum succeed loaned or donated personal collections ranging from firearms to paperweights. One family shared its collection of trophy African big game heads.

Those stuffed heads made an impression on Bobby Harris, who lives in far East El Paso, but grew up near Austin High School and often took two buses to visit the museum.

“I thought, ‘Someone went on one hell of a trip to Africa,’” joked Harris, a retired railroad switchman who said he also was enamored with the museum’s mineral collection as a boy.

Today, the museum has approximately 73,000 pieces among its collections. It maintains permanent exhibits about the region’s natural and cultural history and presents temporary exhibits about UTEP research, Mexico, and border life and culture.

The museum often is considered the university’s front door, because it has introduced thousands of school children to the campus and given them the chance to see the kind of research conducted at UTEP.

Many people are rediscovering the museum this year since it became the official Welcome Center for UTEP’s Centennial Celebration. In this Welcome Center role, the museum is presenting a series of Centennial exhibits about UTEP’s history.

“The Centennial Museum and Chihuahuan Desert Gardens really is a hidden treasure in El Paso,” said Maribel Villalva, director of the museum and gardens. “As the oldest museum in El Paso, it has a special significance in this community, but it’s also an extraordinary place to learn more about the Chihuahuan Desert.”

Starting in 2010, the museum has been helping train the next generation of museum specialists through the university’s museum studies minor. It gives students hands-on experience with collections and public programming, and allows them to apply their classroom experience to real-life situations.

The program has generated better-prepared volunteers and interns for area museums and strengthened inter-museum relationships, said Barbara Angus, senior curator for the El Paso Museum of History, 510 N. Santa Fe. Angus remembered hiking up Mesa Street in the 1980s to visit the museum where she would marvel at Engine No. 1, an 1857 railroad locomotive, and browse through the museum’s gift shop. Now, she studies the exhibits and wishes she could borrow some of the historical artifacts.

“I’ve seen the museum’s evolution,” Angus said. “I don’t think it’s tapped its full potential yet to encourage the inquisitive mind.”

Daniel Perez is a senior writer with University Communications.

Daniel Perez is a senior writer in UTEP's Office of University Communications.