Every so often, the onward march of progress stumbles across the recalcitrant past. In the midst of the frenzy of construction in downtown Austin last year developers uncovered the limestone walls of the oldest remaining house in the central city, which for years had lurked behind the facade of a now defunct restaurant. Demolition of the building was brought to a halt, and it became known that the house had originally been the home of Susanna Dickinson Hannig, the muse of Texas history. Dickinson, her daughter, and a slave named Joe had been the only people inside the Alamo to survive its siege in 1836, their lives spared by Santa Anna. They fled eastward after the battle, and Dickinson and Joe told their story to Sam Houston and anyone else who would listen. It was the kernel of what was to become the story, the tale of the Alamo which generations of future Texans would be called upon to remember.
Upon its discovery last year, the Austin house where she had lived with her fifth husband some 40 years after the Alamo battle was judged to be of some interest, but not so important as to alter the plan to build a Hilton hotel and retail complex on the site. The walls, it was decided, would be removed and put into storage. History would meanwhile take up residence in a more imposing edifice: Less than a mile away, finishing touches were being put on the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum, a multi-million-dollar, multimedia testimonial to the fact that the tale first told by Susanna Dickinson and Joe the slave is still the keystone of what the museum calls “The Story of Texas.” A replica of the Alamo stands smack in the middle of the second floor, occupying a central position in the museum’s grand sequence of replicated structures, which also includes a Caddo Indian house, a mission, a frontier fort, oil derricks, and a rail station. Replicas within replicas: The museum building itself, located just down the street from the Capitol, is a pink granite revision of that building, a sort of cross between the statehouse and a shopping mall.
The museum opened to great fanfare in April. The President came down for its dedication ceremony, and paid glowing tribute to former Lieutenant Governor Bob Bullock, the Last Giant of Texas politics, fondly remembered for his hot temper, his modernization of the Office of the Comptroller, his immoderate appetite for drink, tobacco, and women, and his having ambled across party lines to help Governor Bush along his path of ascent. Eulogies and newspaper pieces written after Bullock’s death in 1999, as well as more recent remembrances, tend not to mention some of his other accomplishments, such as making sure that the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission would not overly impose itself upon the industries it was supposed to be regulating; almost singlehandedly snuffing out the possibility of a state income tax; and passing anti-consumer tort reform legislation. Even George W. Bush has recognized that history’s Bob Bullock would be a sanitized version of the man, acknowledging that many of Bullock’s words “can’t be quoted. They were meant for mature audiences.” It’s the family-friendly, watered-down Bullock who presides over the museum. On the second floor, a larger-than-life bronze Bullock statue is flanked by cases containing some of his favorite possessions, as well as by video screens that play footage, presumably taken from campaign commercials, of Bullock and his fifth wife Jan walking through a field of wildflowers and then pointing at the flowers, or Bullock hugging and shaking hands with persons of different races. (How different this man is than the Bullock of lore—the man who once decided to crash in the back seat of what he thought was a friend’s car, only to wake up and find himself being driven down the highway by a stranger. At that point, he popped up and announced, “Hi, I’m your Secretary of State.”)
It was Bullock who, in the last years of his life, dreamed of “a magnificent museum where our history can be properly displayed” and secured funding for the project from the 1997 Legislature. A largely Republican group of non-historians took over from there. An advertising executive came up with the tag “The Story of Texas,” while the State Preservation Board, then chaired by Governor Bush, approved the architect and design team. Bush also named his Andover buddy and then-Director of Appointments, Clay Johnson, as chair of a three-member museum advisory committee to oversee planning and development. (Neither of these bodies included professional historians, who were brought in as consultants later in the process.) The museum that resulted, like the Bullock memorial inside it, presents Texas in all of its glory and fewer of its inglorious moments. The displays are large and impressive, inlaid with valuable artifacts, interspersed with videos, and burnished so as to be appropriate for child audiences.
The displayed objects themselves would delight anyone with an interest in the history of the state: squat pewter spoons and tarnished halberds from LaSalle’s drowned ship; a 1783 Spanish census report whose neat grid carefully divides the population into men, women, male children, female children, male slaves, and female slaves; the Texas Declaration of Independence on yellowed parchment; color renderings by a Comanche artist of warriors in tremendous headdresses, their horsebound figures tumbling across a piece of animal hide; film excerpts of Franklin Roosevelt?s boosterish speech to the Texas Centennial Exposition of 1936. Trying to avoid the confines of straight chronology, museum planners assigned different themes (“Encounters on the Land,” “Building the Lone Star Identity,” and “Creating Opportunity”) to the three floors of exhibit space?the second and third of which follow rectangular paths around a central atrium, so that the whole is somewhat visible from each of the parts.
Even so, the overall “Story” is essentially the same mythic narrative given to us by mid-century writers like T.R. Fehrenbach, who, in his 1968 book Lone Star: A History of Texas and the Texans, presented Texas history as a sweeping saga that more or less begins with the Spanish Conquest and dwells mostly in the nineteenth century. In the museum as in Lone Star, Stephen F. Austin and Sam Houston and Quanah Parker and Santa Anna strut across the 900-mile-wide stage, laying their claim to territory while thousands of other nameless heroes, farmers and vaqueros and buffalo hunters and speculators, exert themselves upon the land. The saga has been colorized, but not fundamentally altered, by the work of more recent historians concerned with the lives of minorities, women, and working people: Buffalo Soldiers, suffragists, quicksilver miners, and sharecroppers are all given their due.
That the fundamental mythic narrative remains the same can’t exactly be blamed on the museum, since for all the bits and pieces of Texas history brought to light since Fehrenbach first published his book, no one has yet written a new story. And given that the museum is a corporate-underwritten creation of the Texas Legislature, a visitor would be foolish to expect it to contain a substantial amount of critical history. Though there are repeated references to Texans’ “encounters with the land” and to industrial development, the negative environmental consequences of those encounters are not presented. The invasion of Mexico sponsored by expansionist hawk James K. Polk is explained by the sentence, “In its first foreign war, the United States met with unparalleled success.” The birth of the Farmer’s Alliance in Lampasas and subsequent growth of the Populist Movement are relegated to a computer timeline on the second floor. (This timeline, contained on a series of computer screens and also projected onto a screen above the museum entrance, functions as a catch-all for some of the people and events omitted from the rest of the display, such as Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, or the state’s first radio broadcast.)
Yet even Fehrenbach was explicit about the state’s reliance on slave labor during the first half of the nineteenth century, while in “The Story of Texas,” American slaves are hardly mentioned except when gaining their freedom (some before and some after the Civil War.) Immigration after 1900 is not addressed, unless it’s on one of those computer timelines. 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.” In a third-floor display, Lyndon Johnson is one of four eminent Texans who went to Washington and secured more federal grant money and defense contracts for the state, not the man who signed the Voting Rights Act. Though the museum’s planners might have chosen to include the story of our genuine progress from a slaveholding society to a diverse modern one, they did not.
Instead, Texas after 1936 is presented through the prism of the third floor exhibit. A large banner hanging down from that floor into the atrium reads “Opportunity,” which I suppose has a better ring to it than the possible alternative, “Wealth.” The Story of Texas here becomes the story of the Texas economy, from farming and ranching to oil and the defense industry. Oil in particular: Drill bits are given the same kind of prominence as Indian arrowheads or Stephen F. Austin?s diary, in an exhibit that might have been lifted from the Petroleum Museum in George W. Bush’s native Midland. It all seems drearily appropriate now that Bush is president and drilling for oil is enjoying a sort of comeback. How instructive for the kids: After following their teachers around the museum, eating their peanut butter sandwiches, and rubbing their sticky hands over the Bob Bullock statue’s jacket pockets, children may climb back onto their schoolbuses secure in the belief that Davy Crockett died and LBJ lived so that future
Texans like themselves might contribute to our magnificent economy. Yesterday, the Alamo; tomorrow, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
History may provide us with some entertainment in the meantime. After the Dickinson-Hannig house was uncovered last year, a Hilton developer told the Austin American-Statesman that after a year or two in storage, the house would be erected once again inside the hotel lobby as “possibly a wine-and-cheese bar, or a coffee bar.” Though at the time, Austin mayor Kirk Watson said he thought the house would be “an asset to the hotel,” the City Council later voted to move it to a vacant lot several blocks north.