I goofed. In a recent piece criticizing the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum (“Bush’s Bullock Museum,” 5/25/01) I wrote that “American slaves are hardly mentioned except when gaining their freedom…. Immigration after 1900 is not addressed…. There’s no bracero program, no Chicano activism, no Civil Rights movement for that matter; desegregation gets a mention in a temporary side exhibit but not as part of ‘The Story.'” Earlier in the piece, I also mentioned that the birth of the Farmer’s Alliance in Lampasas had been relegated to a computer timeline.
Not having read every piece of text in the exhibits, I should not have used such absolute terms. Turns out some of these things are mentioned on various placards. The gist of my argument, though, was that the museum’s third-floor “Opportunity” exhibit, in privileging economic over social history, presents us with a narrow, inadequate version of “The Story” of modern Texas. A subsequent trip to the museum only further confirmed this.
After the piece came out, I was contacted by Heather Brand, the museum’s public relations director, who offered to show me where precisely in the museum slavery and 20th century immigration are mentioned. My co-editor and I met the friendly and helpful Brand at the museum entrance one recent morning, and we proceeded to follow her through the exhibits. Our first stop was the inside of a settler’s dogtrot cabin on the first floor, where text accompanying one of four recordings of settlers’ diaries talks about “enslaved craftspeople,” and then to a nearby display of a wedding dress once owned by a slave woman, accompanied by text about settlers who brought slaves with them.
As we headed up to the second floor, Brand explained that “We don’t show the brutality of slavery because we do have groups of fourth graders, and do you want to show them a picture of a lynching?” She then escorted us to a panel on the cotton trade, whose text mentions “the 186,000 enslaved African-Americans in Texas.” On a nearby panel about Galveston as a port of entry, an excerpt from the Texas Almanac of 1857 notes the recent arrival of many “heavy slave owners.” A manifest of slaves is one of three documents in the Galveston display.
I skimmed the cotton and Galveston sections on my original visit to the museum; perhaps these items constitute more attention to slavery than I suggested in my article. I do think, however, that there is a substantial middle ground between wedding dresses and photographs of lynchings which the museum might explore, and that the institution of slavery is an important enough part of Texas history to merit a placard of its very own, at the very least.
Brand also pointed out that there is a plaque on the second floor about the Farmer’s Alliance.
From there it was on to immigration after 1900. There are a couple of mentions in the third-floor exhibit; a section on citrus farming in the Valley explains that migrant workers “became the backbone of the citrus industry.” Mexican quicksilver miners and Mexican and Tejano sheep-shearers are noted in other sections.
Finally, there is a portion of wall–well surrounded by a display about World War II military installations, a scale model of the Apollo lunar module, and a case devoted to the inventiveness of the Texas Instruments company–which I confess I completely missed on my first two trips to the museum. Entitled “Peacetime Challenges 1945-1970,” it features a large backscreened picture of downtown Austin on V-J Day, and seven small placards devoted to civil rights milestones.
I’m sorry to have missed this the first time, but then again civil rights history should not be quite so easy to miss. (When I suggested this to Brand, she acknowledged that the “Peacetime Challenges” display might be less information than some would like, but noted that “It’s larger than some others. It’s larger than the section on the Old 300” (the first 300 families brought by Stephen F. Austin to settle in Texas). I ought to have read every piece of text, and I apologize to both the museum and our readers for not having done so. Even so, the brief mentions of sheep-shearers and civil rights advocates on the third floor did not alleviate my disappointment with that section of the museum. Immigration before 1900 is seen as essential to the museum’s “Story,” while post-1900 immigration is minimally portrayed as one of the side effects of economic growth. The vast social changes wrought by 20th century population shifts and social movements in Texas play a distant second fiddle to information about oil, ranching, and the military industry. This is an imbalance that the museum should seek to rectify as it plans its future exhibits. –KO