The John E. Conner Museum at Texas A&M University at Kingsville was named for the first chairman of the history department at South Texas State Teachers College (which ultimately became Texas A&M University at Kingsville). John Edwin Conner also became the dean of the school when its name was changed to Texas College of Arts and Industries. The museum collection started in 1925, soon after the college opened. People thought that Conner, a Phi Beta Kappan and a historian, would be interested in preserving historical artifacts, and began bringing them to him. Early annuals show these first acquisitions displayed on the back wall of the history room in the only classroom building. The collection outgrew the space in Conner's room and expanded to cases in the hallways. In the late 1940s the campus's open-air forum was walled in, and the collection was moved to that space. With no heating or air conditioning and a leaking roof, the new space had one advantage: it could be locked. Conner retired in 1954 but continued working as museum director until 1964, when he moved. Melvin Miller, a history professor, became the second director of the museum. The Civil War was Miller's chief interest, and a number of archival materials from that period were accumulated for the museum. When Miller died in 1968, another history professor, Beth Baker, was asked to direct the museum. She wisely spent the first state appropriation, received that year, for a new roof. After the building was roofed, the next year's budget was spent on air-conditioning. The museum's modern era began in the fall of 1970, when it was opened to the public on a regular basis.
Mrs. Jimmie Picquet worked under Baker as a graduate assistant from 1970 to 1972. Upon finishing her M.S. in 1972, she became director. In 1975 the Conner Museum was given permission to use the dining hall, constructed in 1935, for its new quarters, and was allotted $13,000 for renovations. The new quarters were opened in June 1976. For the American Bicentennial, a traveling exhibit trailer was constructed; it toured sixteen counties, taking South Texas history to the people. Offices, collection storage rooms, the laboratory, and the South Texas Archives are housed in a 25,000-square-foot dormitory adjacent to the museum, for a total of 38,000 square feet. The collection continues to grow in both quality and quantity; since 1972 the number of items in the collection has tripled.
The museum's collections, in three major divisions-artifacts, archives, and natural history-are a record of the prehistory, history, and natural history of South Texas. The artifact collections are related to the history of the ordinary man in South Texas. These collections include more than 900 branding irons, a multigenerational apparel and textile collection with items ranging from hand-sewn corset covers to miniskirts, and a collection of pre-Columbian pottery, ceramics, and effigies. An extensive collection of blacksmith, farrier, and wheelwright tools includes more than 100 different tongs, farm machinery designed to be drawn by mules, hand tools, ranching tools, and equipment ranging from fence stretchers to a chuckwagon. There are also early oilfield tools and scale models of refineries. Some 400 weapons and 50,000 Indian artifacts are in the collection. The museum's collections of South Texas biological specimens were combined in 1981 with those of the university's biology department.
From an annual budget of $15,000 in 1972, the operating budget increased to $280,000 by 1994, when appropriations from the state accounted for about 22 percent of the total funds. In 1986 and 1987 exhibits were renovated with the help of a $2.1 million grant from the Caesar Kleberg Foundation. The grant enabled the museum to establish the Caesar Kleberg Hall of Natural History, which focuses on the ecosystems of South Texas and northern Mexico and includes an exhibit with items that children can handle. In 1976 a museum support group was established, and the museum was encouraged to seek additional funds through grants and other gifts. The Friends of the Conner Museum established a permanent fund, which by the early 1990s had $295,000. The museum's South Texas Archives have been designated a depository for valuable county records by the Regional Historic Resource Depository division of the Texas State Archives. The South Texas Archives also have microfilm records of the eleven adjacent counties available on interlibrary loan. From the 1970s through the early 1990s the Conner Museum steadily increased its services to the region and developed an educational outreach program. In 1994 the museum had about 21,000 visitors and employed six full-time workers.