The great men of Texas

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Big friggin’ star outside the Bullock, Austin

El Paso is preparing for the Pope’s visit on Wednesday. The Pope is conducting a mass just over the river in Juarez, but that’s close enough to cause major disruptions (see the El Paso Times article “Pope Francis in Juarez: A Survival Guide”).

Texas is a state used to big events and big men (heck, no surprise a quail-hunting trip to a vast ranch in west Texas gave Justice Scalia a fatal heart attack earlier last week). You hear it all the time. Their tourism bureau banks on it. Just try driving across the place, as we have been for the last several days. It’s big, and this is coming from someone who’s driven across Canada a couple of times.

It’s the kind of country that’s heavy into myth-building. I’m surprised that Paul Bunyan isn’t from Texas (though we did spot the world’s largest roadrunner in Fort Stockton). The state will just have to be happy with LBJ and Davy Crockett and Sam Houston.

The Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin has a lot of “Big Man History” to tell, and it unfolds it at a breakneck speed, barely pausing to consider that there might have been a First Nations story that proceeded the Big Man history.

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Building the Lone Star identity, Bullock Museum, Austin

Making the Texan myth starts with a nod to the Tejano people and trots on to explain the Texan bid for independence from Mexico. The Alamo figures prominently (I’ll do an entire post on the Alamo), plus the slogan “Come and get it” with a cannon, a symbol tailor-made for the NRA.

In an interpretive sense, the storyline is set: it is, as one curator put it to me years ago, the “trudge through history” method. You start at one point and necessarily fetch up at the inevitable end. Along the way, there are offset galleries dedicated to African-American history, agriculture, oil, and Austin City Limits.

The building is big and it is beautiful. It offered nothing alternative to what I expected, but it was all done rather well. A stand out for me was a volunteer interpreter who helpfully explained that the community of Almonte, Ontario got its name from a Mexican commander during the rebellion. More on the value of live interpreters in my forthcoming LBJ post.

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Tower, University of Texas, Austin. Built in 1937, the tower occupies the highest point in the campus’s 40 acres. Tours available daily–you can’t just go up there on your own anymore, for obvious reasons.

Another big unavoidable thing is the tower at the University of Texas at Austin. You can see it from everywhere (the campus is centrally located, with an elevated freeway running close-by). No where did I see any interpretation of the fact that in 1966, an architectural engineering major and ex-Marine climbed to the top of the tower with an arsenal of guns. He’d already killed his mother and wife. He started shooting from the top of the tower. The crime scene covered 5 city blocks. He killed 11 people.

Apparently, the university created a “place of reflection” within the tower, but only in 1999. Most positive narratives have a darker side. The flip side of big man stories isn’t always pleasant.

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One thought on “The great men of Texas

  1. Pingback: In praise of a living history | Interpreter X

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