Growing Tribune-Herald museum to add Branch Davidian exhibit

This tabletop diorama of the Branch Davidian compound was prepared in minute detail by a Waco museum group with help from Baylor.

A museum that has quietly taken shape in the back of the Waco Tribune-Herald is preparing to grow again by adding an exhibit on the 1993 Branch Davidian disaster.

Backers of the Tribune-Herald ’s Through Our Pages Museum see it as another step in its evolution toward becoming a comprehensive Waco history museum.

The Davidian exhibit was created by the Museum Association of Waco and has been housed since at the Helen Marie Taylor Museum of Waco Life and History. The Taylor museum is the only local history museum in town, but it has not had a staff or regular hours since 1998.

The museum association voted last year to loan the Davidian exhibit to the newspaper museum. Tribune-Herald museum founder Ann Roznovsky said the museums are negotiating the details of how to move it.

The centerpiece of the exhibit is a tabletop diorama of the Davidian cult compound, prepared by museum association officials with help from Baylor’s museum studies program. It includes minute detail, down to cars, animals and debris around the site in the time before the federal standoff and the conflagration that killed about 80 people.

Roznovsky, who served for years as the Trib’s marketing director, said the exhibit is a “perfect fit” for the newspaper’s museum. She noted the Tribune-Herald had begun publishing a multipart investigative series on the obscure Davidian sect when federal agents raided the compound and brought the world’s attention to Waco.

“It was the Tribune-Herald ’s story from start to finish,” Roznovsky said. “With this exhibit we can explain what happened to high school and college kids who weren’t even born then.”

Waco history

The Trib museum already includes a section on the Branch Davidian episode, among many exhibits on Waco history. It includes a decade-by-decade history of the city as told through artifacts and old newspapers, plus exhibits on special topics such as Heisman trophy winner Robert Griffin III.

It also preserves old newspaper equipment, such as a hot-letter press and an array of artifacts from a long-shuttered newspaper in Alto, Texas.

The family of Clifton and Gordon Robinson this summer sold the newspaper to Berkshire- Hathaway’s Midlands Newspapers chain but maintained ownership of the building and the museum.

“When we sold the newspaper, we did not sell the museum because we felt the new owners would not treasure it as much as we did,” Gordon Robinson said. “We did not want to see the pieces disappear or get sold off.”

Roznovsky started the museum in 2001 and oversaw a major expansion and reorganization last year. Open for tours by appointment, it has drawn up to 3,000 visitors a year, though attendance dropped last year as schools cut back on field trips.

Roznovsky said the museum lacks visibility, and without regular staff and better public access, she is reluctant to market it heavily.

“I don’t think people are very aware of it,” Roznovsky said.

Robinson said in a few years he would like to move the museum to a more accessible downtown location and use it as the foundation of a general local history museum.

A nonprofit organization could be formed to run the museum, perhaps in collaboration with existing organizations such as the Taylor museum and Historic Waco Foundation, Robinson said.

Historic Waco Foundation executive director Don Davis explored the idea of creating a local history museum when he started in 2009, but he said this week his board isn’t ready to take on such a project.

Davis has met with Taylor at her Virginia home about reopening her museum, but gave up on that effort.

Taylor, a Waco native, used her own money to renovate an old school into the museum, which opened in 1993. The museum included exhibits on the prehistoric Horn Shelter, the Cotton Palace and early American history.

In 1998, citing a lack of local support, she closed the museum to all but occasional tours, and several local efforts to revive it have failed.

Sam Kinslow, a Waco attorney for Taylor, said the museum still is open by appointment, and he pointed out that the Tribune-Herald museum also doesn’t have regular hours.

Kinslow said tours can be arranged by calling the listed number for the Taylor museum. A call to that number this week yielded a brief recorded message: “This mailbox is unable to accept messages at this time. Please try again later.”

Tax-exempt status

A report from the nonprofit tracking website stated the IRS had revoked the Taylor museum’s tax-exempt status because it didn’t file required financial reports for at least three years.

Taylor recently wrote a letter urging the Museum Association of Waco not to remove the Davidian exhibit, but Kinslow said she is not planning to interfere with the removal.

“She regrets it, but she has no issue with the owner of an exhibit or item retrieving it,” Kinslow said. “She wants to make sure (the move) is done correctly. We don’t want something to be done quickly and wrong.”

Cameron Park Zoo director Jim Fleshman, president of the museum association, said the exhibit never was intended to be on permanent loan to the Helen Marie Taylor Museum.

But he said the museum deserves credit for being willing to house the Davidian exhibit in the 1990s when no other museum would.

“At the time I think it was too fresh,” he said. “There were still a lot of open wounds. Now Waco can embrace that a bit because it’s not current history but past history. It defined Waco for several years, but we’ve moved beyond that.”


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