Texas History: The Bullock Texas State History Museum reopens its wide-open spaces
Texas, your museum is back.
In early September, the Bullock Texas State History Museum, the most comprehensive museum on the subject, reopened in a limited way.
As with so many other attractions that have come back at this point in the pandemic, you must reserve a time to visit. Smaller rooms, theaters and displays within the museum continue to be unavailable. Other health precautions remain in force; for instance, interaction with “touchable” displays is limited.
To complicate matters, extensive construction on North Congress Avenue makes entry into the museum’s underground parking structure something of an adventure. Plan ahead.
Yet after you arrive, the place is yours.
No buses. No schoolchildren. No extended families of tourists. While peak capacity for this expansive museum is currently just 150, I encountered only five visitors during my hourlong weekday stay.
“We’re doing this very much in phases,” says museum spokeswoman Emily Morris, “reevaluating every couple of months.”
If you are already a fan of the museum, three things might be new to you.
In late 2018, the museum rebooted the ground floor section of its more or less chronological permanent exhibit about the earliest Texas times. The look is sophisticated. The research is impeccable.
“Walk into the newly overhauled permanent exhibit on the first floor, which delves into the region’s prehistory and early history,” I wrote in early 2019, “and another impression emerges: The Bullock has stepped into the 20th century.”
In a case of good timing, the museum now also offers a new temporary exhibit in the large room to the left of the vaulted main lobby. “This Light of Ours: Activist Photographers of the Civil Rights Movement” chronicles the work of the brave souls who documented the protests, marches, speeches, violence and other political activity in the South during the last days of Jim Crow in the 1960s.
Sound a bit like 2020?
Put together by the Center for Documentary Expression and Art along with Cleveland’s Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage, the exhibit looks in many ways like the 2018 Briscoe Center for American History showing “Struggle for Justice: Four Decades of Civil Rights Photography.”
That tight Briscoe exhibit benefited from powerful, historic images from its own collection. The Bullock show, on the other hand, takes advantage of more space to breathe along with some creative staging. It also contains an additional wall dedicated to the multitude of civil rights protests from Austin’s past.
The Bullock show devotes more attention to midcentury Black life. These images recall the visible hurt, backbreaking work and grinding poverty, but also glimpses at play, prayer and good times. Since various photographers took these images, some find beauty in everyday life, while others make the viewer wince with pain at these very American daily dramas.
We see the training for the inevitable violence that met voting rights organizers, the angry white faces of counter-demonstrators, the calm marches into the maelstrom of police brutality.
“There was a sense pervading that period that not only were we all part of history, but we were history itself,” Tamio Wakayama, a photographer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, is quoted as saying. “Like we were the vanguard of this whole, new bright millennium.”
By the time the visitor reaches a map of the 1,020 active contemporary American hate groups, the answer is already clear: Their job is undone. (Interestingly, New Mexico is the only state without a documented hate group in this snapshot in time.)
The traveling exhibit ends with an image by Matt Herron that will be hard to forget. Marchers on the way from Selma to Montgomery are moving left across the frame against a darkening sky. Some of the demonstrators on what appears to be a natural ridge point up or forward. One waves. They carry two American flags, one waving above the lively group; another leans lower, its tail scooped up by a respectful marcher.
The parallel between Herron’s comparatively high-spirited 1965 image and the famed “Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima” from 1945 is inescapable.
The contrast between this somber but inspirational temporary show and the bright, new, celebratory showcase of the state’s oil and gas industry, set up amid the museum’s permanent exhibit on the third floor, could not be more startling.
But first I wandered a bit. Saw very little on slavery. A lot on the Civil War. Also, a lot on the Old West. Some of it, however, such as the imitation rough limestone flooring, verges on kitsch almost two decades after the museum’s opening.
Back to the oil-and-gas show: This midsize room is fun and instructive. The eye immediately goes to a vertically oriented display of oil and gas byproducts that doubles as a pop culture art project. We find nearby oil field maps, geological cross-sections, intimidating pieces of machinery and a big, vertigo-inducing video of an offshore rig.
Little is included about the daily lives of roughnecks, or the folks who labored in the oilfield camps that followed them. Little or nothing on pollution or climate change.
“Oil Changed Texas,” reads a banner. “Texas Changed the World.”
No disputing that.
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