$25 million museum to sing praises of women Dallas site to focus on achievements, from early days to space age


WASHINGTON -- A deteriorating Dallas opera hall that doubled as a livestock pavilion will soon find new life as the nation's first major museum dedicated solely to the contributions of women to American life.

The $25 million state-of-the-art facility in Dallas' Fair Park will highlight women's achievements from the earliest settlers to modern-day astronauts. First lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, a Texas Republican, joined the museum's sponsors yesterday in announcing the planned opening in October 2000.

"Just think what this museum will mean to the countless numbers of young women who will go through," Clinton said. "With this new museum, people everywhere will have a place to experience the legacy of women, to share in their struggles and build on their accomplishments."

Organizers predicted that The Women's Museum: An Institute for the Future will draw at least 500,000 visitors a year. The 70,000-square-foot, three-story exhibit hall will feature interactive displays, a "Women's Walk of Fame" celebrating historic milestones and a 300-seat theater for performances, films and lectures.

With the help of high-tech gadgetry, visitors will be able to participate vicariously in a suffragette march, experience the life of women workers on a World War II assembly line and hold "virtual reality" conversations with Cleopatra, Joan of Arc, Eleanor Roosevelt and other historic figures.

The Institute for the Future on the museum's third floor will include a bank of computers that will be used for computer camps and other programs for girls. The museum's dual mission is to honor the past while shaping the future. Organizers expect to charge $4 for admission.

"I think it's about time we had a museum dedicated to the women of this country," Hutchison said. "I want young women to see how much women have contributed to building our country. If young girls see these contributions, it will inspire them to do great things."

The concept for the museum began, literally, with a dream. Cathy Bonner of Austin, president of the Foundation for Women's Resources, said she got the idea in her sleep in early 1996.

In October of that year, she toured the crumbling Dallas opera hall. At one time, the building, constructed in 1910, was host to livestock shows by day and musical performances by night. One of the most striking features is an art deco statue of Venus rising from a cactus in front of the building.

The statue, known as "The Spirit of the Centennial," was added to the building as part of the 1936 celebration marking the 100th anniversary of Texas' independence from Mexico.

"When we saw that statue, we knew we had found a home," Bonner said. "This project really has hidden hands. Everything we've tried to do has come together in an amazing way."

The cactus statue also impressed Clinton, who said that the image "somehow sums up a woman's life to me." The first lady, who left the announcement ceremony before reporters could ask about the sex scandal involving her husband, said the woman in the cactus is a fitting symbol for the new museum.

"There will be a lot of stories of lots of women who may have stepped on a few or had a few thrust at them, but [they] came right out and kept going time and time again," she said.

Funding for the museum will come from foundations, corporations and private donors. SBC Communications, the parent company of Southwestern Bell, Pacific Bell, Nevada Bell and Cellular One, promised yesterday to match the first $10 million in contributions.

Bonner said she expected to have little trouble raising the money. Organizers are also talking with the Smithsonian Institution about a cooperative arrangement with the new museum. The facility's Texas backers said the project will be another boost for Fair Park, a once ailing museum complex.

"Having it in Dallas is going to really add to the strength of Fair Park," Hutchison predicted. "It is going to be a tourist destination."

Pub Date: 3/19/98

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