Dates can be deceiving.
The Bob Bullock Texas State History museum opened in 2001.
Yet it was — and partly still is — very much a product of the 20th century.
Bright graphics. Simple stories. Exhibits arranged as if for an amusement park.
At times, what was simple bled into the simplistic and, therefore, misleading. After all, its backers reasoned, the Bullock was aimed at the seventh-grade level, when many of the state’s students take a Texas history course.
The museum told a patriotic and uncomplicated story that did not provide a complete context for the encounters among various groups in Texas. Few of the presentations dealt in uncomfortable truths. Some of the history, particularly in the sections dealing with Native Americans, was demonstrably unhistorical.
Walk into the newly overhauled permanent exhibit on the first floor — which delves into the region’s prehistory and early history — and another impression emerges.
The Bullock has stepped into the 21st century.
La Belle as centerpiece
The upper floors of the permanent exhibit await overhauls. Yet in their current state, they contrast instructively with the new look and philosophy found on the ground floor.
While the upper floors are still brightly and evenly lighted, for instance, the lighting on the first floor instead dramatizes the objects and the words that put them into context.
The older arrangements also put a fair amount of emphasis on chronological order, while the new section, “Becoming Texas: Our Story Begins Here,” assigns a pride of place to the French ship La Belle, which sank in Matagorda Bay in 1685.
It is not remotely the oldest artifact — or story — in this new section, yet one can spy the theatrically staged ribs of the transport ship, part of an ill-fated expedition led by René-Robert Cavelier, known as Sieur de la Salle, from all the way across the Bullock’s vaulting lobby.
Some remnants of our state’s indigenous past, however, are positioned in the entryway before the visitor physically reaches the ship.
Immediately to the right, for instance, is a stone projectile point the size of a big toenail, unearthed at the so-called Gault Site in Central Texas. It dates back to 16,000 years ago. This tiny artifact quietly reminds us that Native Americans lived in Texas a very long time before the Spanish and French made their claims to the region in the 16th and 17th centuries.
It’s worth adding that recent DNA analysis indicates that these first-wave inhabitants, sometimes called Paleo-Indians, were closely related to the people whom the Europeans encountered here and whose descendants are with us today, not a separate set of migrants altogether as some theorists have claimed.
“Every discovery changes our understanding of history,” exhibition curator Franck Cordes says about the fresh genetic evidence, which upends the theories that the Paleo-Indians might have migrated from China, Europe or elsewhere. “The Tonkawa say, ‘We’ve been telling people we’ve been here much longer than people imagined.'”
To the left in the entryway are some slightly larger artifacts — made from travertine, turquoise, reed, ochre, ceramics or shells, some materials from as far away as the Pacific — that illustrate the trade and migration among these early inhabitants before the arrival of the Spanish and French.
One immaculate pottery vessel, however, is a contemporary replica, made by Jeri Redcorn, a Caddo artist who lives in Oklahoma.
Sandals, found in an ultra-arid ceremonial cave in West Texas, are also on display here, borrowed from the Texas Archeological Research Center in North Austin, where dozens of similar fiber sandals from the same site are stored in protective shelves.
A film in the first gallery shows the migration patterns of various Texans going back as early as 20,000 years ago.
An amazingly accurate 1561 Spanish map of the region is all the more startling because it was made only 40 years after the fall of the Aztec Empire.
Nearby are some artifacts retrieved from a 1554 Spanish shipwreck that held $44 million in recovered silver and gold.
The rest of the first gallery, however, is all about La Belle.
The first thing you think: How did this little boat cross the Atlantic Ocean?
“It wasn’t supposed to come that way,” Cordes says. “It was meant to be transported in pieces inside a larger ship, then assembled on this side to explore bays and rivers. But at the last minute, the French decided to assemble it in La Rochelle and it sailed with La Salle’s other ships. Small ship, dangerous journey.”
The curators have included a nifty video about the construction of the ship and a scale model in wood of what La Belle would have looked like when launched.
The comprehensive La Salle story, much of it retrieved from the journal of survivor Henri Joutel, is too dense to share here. Yet the man who had explored the Great Lakes and Mississippi River for France had miscalculated the location of the great waterway’s mouth on a return trip. He landed instead in Texas. He and his soldiers and colonists built a small fort near what became Indianola as conditions slowly began to disintegrate.
Thirty-five people died when the ship sank in Matagorda Bay. A tiny side note: The French sailors probably drowned when La Belle went down because they didn’t know how to swim. They were astounded by the Karankawas who easily swam out to the ship when they arrived.
La Salle then led a desperate party northward to seek help, but he was murdered by his own men near the Trinity River. The families left behind were easily picked off, and the surviving children were adopted by the Karankawas. The French children were later captured by the Spanish.
On a tall, spellbinding wall set up behind the ship’s remains are some of the 1.8 million artifacts that marine archaeologists recovered from the wreck after it was discovered in 1995. That sounds like a lot, but 785,000 of those objects were tiny colorful beads meant for trading with the Indians. Ax heads, pewter plates, bells, ceramic objects and ship rigging are among the recovered treasures on this wall.
RELATED: The Bullock's master of artifacts: Tom Wancho
How did all of this material survive? La Belle went down in less than 12 feet of water. The parts that were covered with silt were able to avoid the sea worms that normally would have destroyed the wood. Among the incredible finds, too, was a long, embossed iron cannon, whose markings helped date the ship when it was found in the 1990s.
Along with some Spanish military artifacts — just to remind viewers that the Spanish were here already when the French arrived — the rest of the first gallery tells even more of La Belle’s story. It’s important to remember that the shipwreck and its contents still belong to the French government, which gave Texas permission to plan the original design of the Bullock around this long-anticipated presentation.
For those intensely interested in archaeology and what happens to unearthed artifacts, there’s a film of the recovery and preservation of the La Belle haul.
Although the French floundered in Texas for just a few months, the intruders altered Spanish policy about the land north of the Rio Grande and, although there were scant amounts of normally motivating gold or silver, encouraged the Spanish to plant a string of forts and missions all the way to present Louisiana, including, in 1730, three temporary missions on the Colorado River, somewhere in the Austin area.
To date, nobody knows exactly where those missions stood. Perhaps some seventh-grade visitors to the new Bullock exhibition will seek out and find remnants of our Spanish past in this part of Central Texas.
All due respect
The second new gallery on the ground floor returns to the stories of the Spanish and the Native Americans. If the 21st-century aspect of the first gallery is its modern design, which looks like a grown-up museum rather than a kids' playground, the innovation in the second gallery is the respect and depth of care given to the lives of the indigenous people.
Dominating the room is a giant graphic of large, lighted circles that explain the annual activities of the major tribal/linguistic groups — Comanche, Apache, Tonkawa, Caddo, etc. — through the seasons of the year. The details here are so rich that one can’t help staring at the concentric circles for as long as possible to absorb what one can.
You might learn, for instance, that the hunter-gatherer Tonkawas, the main inhabitants of the Austin area, did not delve into agriculture, as some sources have claimed.
How do we know that this and other conclusions are accurate? Historical research has accumulated since the Bullock opened 18 years ago. Also, more and more, historians and curators are listening to the people themselves.
Cordes: “We sought and received the blessings of the tribes before putting anything of their heritage on view."
The Bullock curators, too, were mindful of the sites where all the aboriginal artifacts were found. They identified what might have come from a sacred burial site, which would have put them off limits.
The Spanish material in this room deals mostly with the presidios and missions, presented in a section titled “The Spanish Respond.” While correspondence survives among Spanish authorities about the importance of holding onto Texas, historians confirm there were still only 3,000 Spaniards — 1,000 of them considered “pure Spanish” in the caste system of the time — in all of Texas by the time of the Mexican War of Independence in 1821.
In comparison, 30,000 Comanches lived in Texas along with members of other Indian tribes, far outnumbering the Spanish at the time, even after smallpox and other Eurasian diseases had decimated the Indians of North America.
Visitors will want to linger over the heavy wooden double gates rescued from the Herrera family ranch in the San Antonio area. The Spanish, of course, were ranching in Texas long before the first American-style cowboy arrived. This exhibit reminds us that in 1787 all unbranded cattle in Texas became property of the King of Spain, but Tejanos fought back against this decree.
One part of the exhibit, an advanced video screen, will change as more descendants share their stories set in the Texas landscape. Cordes assures us that many of the artifacts — the Bullock by design owns none of the artifacts — will be rotated in the months and years to come.
If you like maps, Cordes presents several that remind us how hugely important these documents were. Some became potent weapons in the continental rivalry between the Spanish and French. The Spanish, by the way, treated maps as state secrets, and they often came without wording.
A timeline wall shows local politics during the first colonial eras alongside what was happening elsewhere in the world.
One last document is on loan from the National Archives: one of only two surviving copies of the 1819 Adams-Onis Treaty between Spain and the United States that ceded Florida to the U.S. and defined the boundaries, including the Red and Sabine rivers, between the two countries. This would have lasting impact on the concept of where Texas ends and the rest of the world begins.
The 19th-century arrival of Anglo-Americans and African-Americans, as well as Germans and other immigrants, awaits the story’s continuation upstairs. It will be interesting to see if the new seriousness on display on the first floor will hold — when the upper floors are overhauled — to memories of the clashes between the Anglo settlers and the Indians, as well as with the Mexican and U.S. governments later in the 19th century.
One early indication that the Bullock is interested in a more accurate and nuanced history of the region was its award-winning temporary exhibit “Life and Death on the Border, 1910-1920,” which dealt with the extrajudicial violence against Mexicans and Mexican-Americans in the early 20th century. A follow-up symposium about the 1919 legislative investigation into the misdeeds by state forces will be held Jan. 31 and Feb. 1 at the museum.
RELATED: Life and Death on the Texas-Mexico border
If you are not the symposium type, the book to read is Monica Muñoz Martinez’s “The Injustice Never Leaves You: Anti-Mexican Violence in Texas.”
If the Bullock staff can invest this new level of seriousness to the rest of Texas history without alienating those visitors who expect a uniformly celebratory story, then this popular and essential museum will have fully arrived in the 21st century.