‘Collections’ highlights unusual and historic objects held at UT

It weighs 11 pounds. In its 720 pages are 924 photos.

Some 11 years in the making, the book — “The Collections: The University of Texas at Austin,” published by UT Press — is the first attempt to chronicle the more than 170 million objects that belong to the university.

It’s not just the prized gems of UT’s well-known libraries and museums that are featured — for example, the Ransom Center’s Gutenberg Bible or the Watergate-related papers of journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. Curious and strange items that reside within academic departments, research centers and overlooked corners of UT get their due in “The Collections.”

“The objects you find illustrated in this book are merely a sample of the diversity and complexity of artifacts held,” according to the book’s forward.

The College of Natural Sciences has a repository of thousands of living algae specimens. The law school has a collection of 19th century patent models, prototypes by hopeful inventors of, for example, an improved prosthetic leg.

Fish and shark teeth that are 50,000 years old and jars of animal specimens were collected by the Texas Natural Science Center.

Among the 300,000 items in the Historical Music Recordings Collection are early 20th century piano rolls and phonograph cylinders.

The Dolph Briscoe Center for American History claims a pair of Gene Autry’s cowboys boots that once belonged to Willie Nelson.

The Briscoe Center also has a 1945 poll tax receipt issued to Juanita Craft, a civil rights activist and the first black woman in Dallas County to vote in a public election. And there’s a photograph taken through the bullet-ridden glass of a storefront on Guadalupe Street on Aug. 1, 1966, after Charles Whitman’s shooting rampage from the UT Tower.

It’s those kinds of historically important objects, as much as anything, that inspired Andrée Bober, now director of UT’s public art program, to conceive of creating a book that would outline each collection the university owns.

First as a graduate student in the 1990s, then a decade later when she returned to the Forty Acres for her current job, Bober wondered why public information about many of the university’s holding was so scarce.

After all, UT began acquiring the day it was founded in September 1883, when the Board of Regents accepted a gift of a plaster bust of former Texas Gov. Oran Roberts, sculpted by German-born Austin artist Elizabet Ney.

“This is a road map for the public to begin navigating UT’s collections,” Bober said. “And (the book) establishes the university for the major repository that it is.”

Bober spent years wrangling some 300 of her academic colleagues to sift through the 80 collections outlined in the volume.

“Many in charge of some collections didn’t know about others on campus,” she said. “It was illuminating for everyone involved.”

Funding for the project came largely via private donations including grants from the Tocker Foundation, the Amon G. Carter Foundation and the Still Water Foundation.

“My hope is that students or scholars or artists or whoever can use this book to find things that spark their creativity or find ways to bring new understanding to these objects,” Bober said. “This a public university, and these collections belong to the public.”

Doug Dempster, the dean of the College of Fine Arts and who helped Bober shepherd the book into existence, said that UT’s hoard is too often taken for granted.

“The cultural legacy collected in Texas is something we should be celebrating for how far the startup state has come in relatively few years,” Dempster says.

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