Bathroom museum

IMG_3764When you start looking for interpretive signage, it’s everywhere. Even in the bathroom. Maybe especially in the bathroom.

All we wanted, really, was lunch. Right on the line between Arizona and California, not quite a “sweet spot” (in fact, the quite dishevelled community of Quartzite, Arizona). The Times 3 restaurant beckoned from the highway; we stopped. We got out. We wondered at the sulphurous air. We looked it up: Quartzite is America’s rock capital. Rockhounds flock here in droves. It’s the point of Quartzite, its reason for being.

We sat with menus. My husband got up and came back, saying to me, “You gotta go to the bathroom.”

Just between the men’s and the women’s rooms, a whole wall of old photos, lovingly annotated. Let it be known: I love this stuff. I love the care that’s taken, the very idea “we know this place”. We care about this place and the stories it holds.

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Sure, most of it was a straight-up listing of names and dates. But the fact that it’s there is what impressed me most.

We finished our meal and went up to the counter to pay. One last treat: at the cash machine, trapped under the weight of glass, a menu. The restaurant remembers itself. I left, delighted.

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Out on the range

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Welcome sign at the Sonoran Desert Museum: private, not-for-profit. You read that right.

Say it slowly: The Sonoran Desert Museum.

If you’re me, you’ve just somehow mangled that in your head as the Snorin’ Museum. I’m here to tell you: anything but snorin’, fellow museum geeks.

A delightful experience (albeit not cheap), I was particularly impressed by the text, even though there were distractions aplenty, from flying raptors to a forest of spiked saguaro cacti and ocelots/foxes/porcupines and heat-omg-heat. Even getting here–crossing a rather vertiginous slope up and down from Tucson–was a bit of an adventure.

Once there, the various tones of the texts, the straight-ahead approach, and the museum’s willingness and ability to use humour and wit were all impressive.

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Yes, that’s an exclamation mark.

I really like layered text, being able to pick out what I want to read. I’ve compared myself to a hummingbird before, flitting about exhibitions, draining the nectar from the flowers, often ignoring the foliage, and perhaps pollinating while I go, but not really intentionally. /persuasive-yet-clumsy-hummingbird-analogy

Here, I was immediately drawn to the, erhm, drawings, signalling a light approach. A deeper dive was possible in the smaller text, revealing more layers of information, most of it interesting and applicable to what I could observe with my own eyes.

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Okay, there’s a bit of confusion with capitalization (title caps mixed with sentence structure with no period…where was the editor?), and egregious fontification, but way to draw attention to what the bees were up to (surely the point). Plus, clever adjacent bee-id info.

The “bee condo” texts were attractive and flawed, but moving in a direction I could get behind. I took more time in this area specifically because this information was here. Plus, seating.

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Sorry for the spackly-light, but this was a neat summation of a…summit.

Here’s a bit of hard science-y information condensed in a readable and understandable chunk. Though a little long for my tastes, the combo of good graphic and solid prose made me forgive the light text on dark background. And putting the visitor perceptions directly into the narrative was welcome. Again, I spent more time here because of this text.

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Use your words.

This was the part of the visit when my husband turned to me and said, “What are you taking a picture of now?” A small keep-off-the-grass sign, okay? Okay. It’s so simple to say “Keep Off” and so much more difficult to say why. This is just nice, clear text. Layered within a very few number of words. Easy, but thoughtful. Don’t just tell people what to do, tell them why they should do it.

It’s the haiku of interpretive text, all right?

Other aspects of the Sonoran Desert Museum were less successful: the food was meh and the heat drove us off the mountain, just as emergency personnel were called in to deal with someone suffering from what I presume was some sort of sun-induced ailment during the overcrowded raptor flight demonstration. In February, people.

But definitely worth a visit. Lovely grounds, pleasant text. Bring water.

 

Remembering and remembrance

I’m five years old, watching Magic World of Disney (Sunday night, dinner on a metal folding table, the black-and-white TV with rabbit ears). There he is, in living colour (except we had b/w TV, remember so only now is he in living colour): Davy Crockett. He of the ‘coonskin cap. I can still hum the song. As long as I remember the Alamo, Davy Crockett will still be fightin’ for li-ber-ty. Oh, Fess Parker.

Here. Go enjoy some Fess Parker yourself.

In any case, the Alamo has remained a shadowy presence in the back of my brain, a ticky box in the long list of “Things I’d Like to See”. San Antonio, famous for the River Walk and for the Alamo (and possibly for the Spurs, I suppose).

The River Walk, particularly the bit aptly named Museum Reach, is wonderful. Stuffed with art-filled turns of glowing sunfish and aural landscapes, it really has to be experienced. Avoid judging the whole experience, if you can, from the bustling downtown sector, replete with generic Tex-Mex restos and elbow-to-elbow tourists threatening to bustle you right into the drink.

As for the actual Alamo, you have to “go upstairs” from the River Walk, like a groundhog sticking its head up into possible winter. As one ought to do for childhood dreams, I was keeping expectations fairly low, same as one would for the food in a restaurant with a great view (like, at the top of the CN Tower, for example). A capital-A “Attraction” with heaps of history, so famous there’s a whole Disney special on it.

Tourists thronged the grounds and queued up in a snake to get in. I’m so Canadian: I see a line, I want to join a line. But this was entrance to the “Shrine”, and no line greeted us at the entrance to the Long Barrack. However, they shun photography in the actual Alamo, for reasons I don’t quite understand.

I’d been primed on Great Man History in Austin, and so knew the story of the Alamo (spoiler alert: Davy Crockett dies, something Walt and co. failed to show in the televised 1960 program). The attack and defence is presented very much as a tragic sacrifice along the lines of “they gave their lives so we could have our freedom”, neatly mirroring Christian ideology.

The interpretive methods were tried-and-true: a rousing video presentation, ample text panels, a number of artifacts, an expansive gift shop.

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Alamo interpretive text panel outlines the aftermath of the Battle of San Jacinto, April 21, 1836.

While more than adequately chronicling Texan deaths at the Alamo (a number ranging from 180-250), the Alamo interpretation soft-pedals Mexican casualties (numbering around 600 at the Alamo, and offering a staggering 650 deaths to Texas’s 11 during the 18-minute Battle of San Jacinto). History is indeed written by the victors.

I left the Alamo deflated, even with my low expectations. The surrounding environs didn’t help lift my spirits. Ringed with souvenir shops and tourist attractions, the Alamo is slowly circled by fairy-lit horse drawn carriages. Directly across the street, American super-heroes raise arms against potential foes in a bizarre counterpoint: plus ça change, plus c’est le même chose.

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Hulk smash Alamo

In praise of a living history

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Longhorn at LBJ’s Ranch

Winding our way through Texas Hill Country between Austin and San Antonio, avoiding the soul-sucking I-10, we found ourselves hankering for a destination. What about Luckenbach? Wasn’t there a song about Luckenbach? Or, wait. How about the 3 million Texas vineyards and wineries you’ve never heard of, each poised to gently siphon dollars from the pockets of a generally well-heeled Texan populace? (side note: the wealth discrepancy between Texas and Louisiana is shocking, just based on their basic amenities and the state of their roads)

In Fredericksburg, there’s no shortage of twee galleries selling bronze statuary of bucking broncs and roped calves, as well as the George Bush Gallery. There’s even the National Museum of the Pacific War (I don’t make this stuff up, because WHERE ELSE WOULD IT BE?) Turns out, Admiral Nimitz is from Fredericksburg, thereby corning the market on land-locked museums telling the Pacific War story.

We parked in a diagonal street-side set up; when getting back into the car after lunch, I was startled by a knock on my passenger-side window: a stetsoned gentleman had parked beside me in his blindingly white behemoth pickup truck. His wife, clutching her pearls on the boardwalk, thought he should at least offer to guide us out of our spot. Evidently our tiny VW Golf wasn’t much seen in this land of the behemoth white pick-ups, and she was afraid we’d get smoked trying to back up into the road.

She smiled when I declined. I think they were really worried for us, driving such a small car.

Ah, yes. A destination. This being Big Man Country (not to be confused with no country for old men, which I think is Arizona or New Mexico), why not Lyndon B. Johnson’s Ranch? It’s a national historic site or something.

Off we went.

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Note to Texas Parks & Wildlife: The US Parks has a waaaaay better logo. I’m worried that your Starbucks green and copperplate font was whipped up by a summer intern.

The LJB State Park and Historic Site is fairly massive and has a herd of longhorn cattle, a tennis court, a swimming pool, and the Sauer-Beckmann Farm (Rural Life, 1900-1918) in addition to the ranch dubbed “The Texan White House”. While LBJ didn’t grow up on the Sauer-Beckmann farm, he grew up on one like it and one of the Sauer daughters was a midwife at LBJ’s birth.

The farm provides one of those truly delightful experiences for someone who works in museums–a kick-ass costumed interpretive staff. These guys were great. I got more information in a short amount of time than any 500-word text panel, computer interactive, or video presentation could possibly deliver. Our fellow, who was just hanging about, rendering lard, was interested in us, interested in what he was doing, and his delivery was gentle and to the point.

Part of what made the farm so nice was that it was specific. It had a story to tell: rural life in west Texas, 1900-1918. Full stop. That was its point and it knew it.

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Free-range artifacts at the Sauer-Beckmann Farm

Artifacts were out in the open, giving heart-attacks to all good conservation-minded museologists. Their proximity led to several overheard conversations–an older gentleman remarking to his partner that he knew this piece of sheet music, or that grandma had something quite similar, etc.

There have been a few times this trip where I’ve had a good conversation with an interpreter or visitor services person or, hell, the waiter at Sabertooth Fine Foods in El Paso. These very human interactions are often down-played or ignored in museum interpretation and exhibition planning.

The American Parks service rotates volunteers through its sites. We met a terrific guide at the William Johnston House in Natchez (a good historic house that provides a nice counterpoint to all the well-I-do-declare Plantation tours that seem to say, “Wouldn’t it be nice to be a plantation mistress with all these slaves and such?”). The Parks training program must be fantastic, to produce such good humans.

But that’s it–the human touch. It needn’t be maudlin. Not robotic, nor heavily scripted. Just well-informed. My favourite way to get my interpretation fix.

Sad, sad text

Please. Just stop with the historical markers. If I’m going to pull my car out of breakneck traffic to swerve to your roadside marker, if I’m going to stop in the unshaded heat of midday to crane my neck upwards, if I’m going to stop near a muttering drunk on 6th street at midnight to examine your plaque on the side of an historic building, please please please make it worth my while.

Just not this.

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Sign in downtown Austin

Did you make it past the second sentence? Me neither.

Give me some excellent words. Something that conveys a sense of excitement and purpose, that pops with violence or passion, that leaves me gutted or uplifted.

Also: ALL CAPS. For the love of god, no.

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.

A day in Cajun country

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A traditional Cajun courir, Iota, Louisiana, 2016.

 

The Cajun Mardi Gras courir was something I’ve always wanted to see. I’d had that sort of fascination that comes of being deeply scared of it–something about the costumes, I think. Something about preconceptions of The Rural South.

Backing up, Mardis Gras is a series of events spread over many days and sometimes weeks leading up to Lent (or Ash Wednesday). We were in Lafayette, not New Orleans. Lafayette bills itself as more family-friendly than NOLA’s bacchanal; it’s still the second largest Mardi Gras in the state. In Lafayette, we spend a wonderful night with friend Suzanne and her family in their annual tent on the fairgrounds, catching beads and eating gumbo that her father made and enjoying their enormous Cajun hospitality. We compared accents (yes, Suzanne, you have an accent), and talked about how maybe Catholic cultures know how to have more fun–perhaps balanced out by guilt and penance. We watched high school marching bands strut their stuff. The end of the parade is a tow-truck. That’s how you know it’s over, the equivalent of the fat lady singing.

The next day, we headed out to Iota, out in the country, to see a courir. Our Air BnB host counselled us to arrive early, perhaps fearing for the relative state of the chicken. For those who don’t know, a courir de Mardi Gras involves a group of revellers going house to house, the homeowner throwing a chicken from the roof (they can sortof fly, right?), running after the chicken, catching the chicken (this becomes harder the longer the courir takes, as participants indulge in more and more beer) and encouraging the home-owners to give them money and/or food items in a version of the stone soup story.

We waited amidst lots of semi-sober people, locals and tourists alike, listening to a kick-ass band, avoiding the stares of the motorcycle gang lounging about on one corner. We ate hot-from-the-fryer beignets, dusted with icing sugar and I chatted in French with a traditional Cajun Mardi Gras mask-maker.

We caught the revellers’ return–a colourful, rag-tag group of people in traditional costume, drunk as lords, swinging a couple of half-dead chickens around. The band took a break as the parade passed the viewing platform in the middle of town.

Then, all the costumed revellers got out and approached the crowd en masse, some caked with mud (I assume the chicken gave them a little trouble during certain chases), holding out and pecking at their hands (hard to do when balancing a beer), wanting a donation.

It was..uhm…disconcerting? Let’s stick with that. I’m not sure what transpired for the rest of the festival–I think the band might have started up again–but it was time for us to go. I’m pretty sure Lent started with hangovers for everyone, as any good Mardi Gras celebrant will tell you.

On the way out, we spotted a cage full of chickens. A local fellow said that these ones were spared from the gumbo pot–I asked if they’d gotten a presidential pardon, like the Thanksgiving turkey. That led to an interesting discussion on politics and why Trump was the candidate best suited for leading America into battle.

A somewhat fitting end to a really weird day.