“Come and Take It!” [Texas Exhibit]

If you are planning to see Texas! The Exhibition at the Houston Museum of Natural Science you are in for a real treat. One of my favorite pieces of Texas memorabilia is stationed right in the middle of this all inclusive Texas! exhibit.

Come And Take It Cannon
The Come And Take It Cannon,
on display in Texas! The Exhibition.
See a full set of images from the exhibit on Flickr.

It’s the “Come and Take It!” cannon from the Battle of Gonzales.

The Battle of Gonzales has been called the “Lexington” of the Texas Revolution. The battle took place on October 2, 1835. Tension had been high between the Mexican government under the leadership of Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna and the U.S. citizens living in Mexican Texas. It was because of this tension that the Mexican forces showed up near Gonzales with a request.

You see, the Mexican government had loaned a small cannon to the people of Gonzales to help ward off Indian attacks in 1831. Now that relations with the Texian colonists and the Mexican government were souring quickly, Mexico felt they should retrieve all of their “loaned” artillery. This task fell into the hands of Col. Domingo de Ugartechea.

Ugartechea dispatched Francisco de Castañeda to Gonzales to retrieve the cannon. According to The Handbook of Texas Online, when Castañeda and his troops arrived they asked the colonists to return the cannon. The colonists pointed the cannon towards the Mexican forces and said “there it is – come and take it.” The ladies of the settlement quickly made a flag to hoist over the cannon simply saying “Come and Take It!”

The cannon was not taken that day by the Mexican forces, and its place in history was now cemented forever. The cannon has been thought of as a symbol of Texas Freedom.

The slogan has proved that you don’t mess with Texas!

When you view this small cannon, you can’t help but think that this little guy made a large impact in the history of Texas and its people.

One feels a sense of pride, not necessarily for the cannon sitting on display but for the actions of those who dared rebel against the Santa Anna government which was restricting their rights as colonists.

Come And Take It
The Come And Take It Cannon,
on display in Texas! The Exhibition.
See a full set of images from the exhibit on Flickr.

The Gonzales Memorial Museum located on 414 Smith Street in the city of Gonzales has been home to this remarkable object since the Museum was built (1936 – 1937). When the Houston Museum of Natural Science decided to put this exhibit together the “Come and Take It!” cannon was a natural fit. The city of Gonzales said, “come and take it,” so we went and took it. Now everyone should come and see it!

Building a Texas-Sized Exhibition

“…a wise and prudent administration in the commencement of her national existence will be universally expected; improving upon the difficult and delicate task of settling in complete and successful operation a political body based upon principles so hazardously asserted and so gloriously maintained.”

Sam Houston’s signature

The above quote could easily be attributed to any number of government entities that have arisen since 1776.  In fact, I wager that it’s applicable to many political upheavals we’re following in 2011.  At least, that what struck me as I recently read this historical document.  The phrase that was deliberately omitted from the quote is this, “For Texas.”  It comes from a letter President Sam Houston wrote to Edward Hall on November 3, 1836 from the town of Columbia.  You can see this letter yourself in our recently opened Texas! exhibit.

If there is any thread to my occasional posts as a HMNS registrar, it is that the connection between an object and a viewer influences the viewer in some way.  As someone whose professional life consists largely of dealing with objects, I am not unfamiliar with the concept.  My collections and exhibits colleagues and I are always keenly aware of the care and respect employed when handling museum objects.  So sometimes we can temporarily lose sight of an object’s scientific/ historical/ aesthetic/ educational value when we’re trying to ensure that its mount is supportive, the lighting levels aren’t harmful, the proper temp and humidity of a gallery/case environment is steadily maintained; in short that nothing goes wrong.  However, being Texas born and bred, I found it difficult not to get caught up in the emotional wow! factor of the items in this exhibit.

Audrey Jones Beck’s Mardi Gras Dress

I’ll readily admit that I inwardly groaned when I saw all the documents that needed condition reports at the start of the exhibit installation. Paper documents are delicate and fragile so we mostly viewed them through mylar sleeves, but even that method still needs an abundance of caution. It wasn’t a job we could zip through. And once again I marveled at the miracles a conservator can perform to mitigate the damages of time.

But over and over I found myself drawn into the words on the page, especially when they were handwritten and signed. In the letter quoted above, Sam Houston goes on to delineate his cabinet members. As I read the names my decidedly low-brow reaction was: well, geez, that’s half the streets downtown. Somehow I never knew that Rusk was the Secretary of War. While perusing the pages of the minutes of the Convention of Texas Independence, I started making connections with my travels throughout the state. The list of attendees is basically a roll call of the counties in this state. Sometimes the words would just sing and I had to take a moment.

Here’s a brief quote from page 24 of the minutes that I particularly like:

“…that unless a people are educated and enlightened, it is idle to expect the continuance of civil liberty or the capacity for self-government.”

Also in the minutes, directly following the declaration of independence, is the appointment of a committee charged with immediately getting the declaration to a printer for wide distribution. Communication is important no matter what era a revolution takes place but the distance between the printer’s broadsides of 1836 and the revolutionary tweets of 2011 is amazing, isn’t it? Not to mention the difference between putting quill to paper and tapping thumbs to glass screens. Which reminds me of something else I noticed through this long (fifty-four plus pages) document, the handwriting was remarkably clear and beautiful to start, towards the end the poor secretary’s hand was beginning to sag. It was a long convention.

Other documents provoked equally strong but completely opposite reactions. As one colleague pointed out, “We’re all creeped out by the slavery stuff.” Documents are made on paper but it’s the actual words that matter. So, yes, it’s pieces of paper from the Harris County tax office but those dry and orderly tax receipts for humans beings considered personal property right here in our now very diverse cosmopolitan city will always retain a repulsive taint. That’s why it’s important to include them in this exhibit.

Davy Crockett’s Violin

But enough already about documents! Let’s go on to random ‘wish we’d snapped a photo’ installation moments.

The faces when folks first saw the turkey dress, a combo of wow! and how the heck are we going to display that thing? Beth and Mike struggling with the San Jacinto Mardi Gras dress, dress waist too tiny, mannequin hips and shoulders too wide, Mike taking a hammer to the nude mannequin in an attempt to narrow said mannequin, suggestions made that our skinniest staff member just stand in the exhibit wearing the dress, sanity returns, new mannequin ordered. (Audrey Jones Beck truly was ‘a mere slip of a girl’ when she wore that thing.)

Rodney ‘age-ing’ the canvas of the Santa Anna tent prop in his backyard. Looking inside the proper right sound hole on Davy Crockett’s violin and seeing penciled “FRANKLIN CO./Feb.14, 1819,” then realizing that the date the violin was being examined was February 14, 2011.

Small things can humanize historical figures. Santa Anna was definitely a cruel harsh man but his fawn paperweight is unexpectedly goofy and charming. The small wood heart whittled by Sam Houston is a tender link to the monumental figure across the street from the museum’s doors.

Beth happened across a list of clothing in Anna Chase’s journal who may have been a spy but according to that wardrobe inventory was also something of a clothes horse. Trying not to hum “Old Man River” (Lift that bale!). The cotton bale is the traditional five hundred pounds, no mount needed. Most disappointing moment for yours truly during the exhibit installation was learning that due to curatorial decision the way cool children’s cap guns from the 1940s and 50s were cut from the exhibit. Man, they had Texas Rangers emblems on ‘em and really worked and everything! Dang.

So that’s a few behind the scenes moments from the Texas exhibit.  Many people worked tirelessly on this exhibit and the gracious lenders were very generous with their treasures.  It wouldn’t have happened otherwise.

But one last thing… On that letter from Sam Houston to Edward Hall which started off this post, in the viewer’s upper left corner an unknown hand exuberantly wrote “Save this!”  Whoever scribbled that was absolutely right and I like to think it was an early forebear of a museum collections worker.

Letter from Sam Houston to Edward Hall with the phrase “Save This.”

Don’t miss these famous objects and more that make up our Texas! exhibition, now on display at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

Kid’s Reading List! Texas Tales

To complement our new Texas! exhibition, we have created a book list for you and your kids to read. In today’s blog we talk about two books by Tomie dePaola.

Few American artists are more beloved than Tomie dePaola.   Tomie and his work have been recognized with the Caldecott Honor Award (awarded annually to the most outstanding picture book for children), the Newbery Honor Award (awarded annually to the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children) and the New Hampshire Governor’s Arts Award of Living Treasure.  And few elementary school picture books have been read by more students than dePaola’s Legend of the Bluebonnet and Legend of the Indian Paintbrush.  dePaola’s simple drawings and the unique messages his books convey make them popular with teachers and parents, too.

De Paola wrote the Legend of the Bluebonnet twenty-eight years ago, but the story is as special now as when it was written.  She-Who-Is-Alone is a Comanche Indian living in Texas many years ago.  She is called She-Who-Is-Alone because everyone else in her family had died because of the drought.

In hope of breaking the drought, the tribe’s leaders said that the Great Spirit wanted tribe members to sacrifice their most prized possession.  She-Who-Is-Alone only had one possession, a doll her grandmother had made from buffalo skin.  The face was decorated with the juice of berries, and beautiful blue flowers were on her head.  The doll was all she has left of her family.

Creative Commons License photo credit: ruthieonart

In the night She-Who-Is-Alone slowly crept to the fire and threw her most prized possession into the flames.  When the ashes grew cold She-Who-Is-Alone threw them into the wind.  In the morning she could not believe what she was seeing. The hills were covered with beautiful blue flowers—the same color blue as the doll’s feathers.

Soon it started to rain and the drought was broken.  The tribe members changed She-Who-Is-Alone’s name to One-Who-Dearly-Loves-Her-People, and every spring the bluebonnets bloom to remind us of the sacrifice of one special young girl.

Little Gopher is the central character in the Legend of the Indian Paintbrush. Unlike the other boys, Little Gopher did not like to run, ride and play; his special talent was painting.  When he went to the hills to contemplate becoming a man, Little Gopher had a dream.  The vision told him to find a white buckskin and keep it.  One day he would paint a picture “that is as pure as the colors in the evening sky.”

Indian Paintbrush Washington Cascades
Creative Commons License photo credit: B Mully

Although he found the buckskin, Little Gopher could not find the right colors. However, one night a voice told him to go on top of a hill the next day at sunset. The voice said, “Because you have been faithful to the People and to your true gift, you shall find the colors you are seeking.” The next evening, Little Gopher found paintbrushes the colors of the sunset all over the hill, and he painted his masterpiece. When he returned to his tribe, Little Gopher left the paintbrushes behind.

The next morning the paintbrushes were all over the hills and had turned into beautiful flowers.  Little Gopher became known as “He-Who-Brought-the-Sunset-to-the-Earth.”  Being true to yourself and using the talents you have been given are wonderful messages for children.

Hopefully, all Texas children will become familiar with The Legend of the Bluebonnet and The Legend of the Indian Paintbrush and want to learn more about the stories unique to our state. With a state as big as Texas, there is so much to learn, and a great place to begin is at HMNS’ new exhibit, Texas! the exhibition, open now.

Flickr Photo of the Month: Sam Houston! [March 2011]

Sam Houston
Sam Houston by Yankee In Texas on Flickr.
Posted here with permission.

There are some amazing photographers that wander the halls of HMNS, and when we’re lucky, they share what they capture in our HMNS Flickr pool. Each month, we share one of these photos here on the blog.

This month, a dramatic image of the Sam Houston statue by Yankee In Texas calls to mind the dramatic exhibition that’s just debuted: Texas! The Exhibition features the events, artifacts and icons of centuries of Texas’ epic history – including many items associated with the big man himself.

The significance of Sam Houston is a point not lost on the photographer. In their words:

I don’t really have much to say about the photo itself. When I took it I was just beginning to learn some of the finer points of art photography. I had given up filling the roll at this point (I still had 5 frames to go on a roll of 30) when I saw the sun just behind the head of Sam Houston. I decided to use this opportunity to try my hand at silhuouette work, so I completed the roll. I was surprised myself at the result.

Houston was one of the founding fathers of Texas, and while he does get credit for his contributions to the founding of Texas, he is often lost in the shadow of William Travis and Stephen F. Austin. Upon reflection, this picture helps give Sam Houston some of the spotlight he deserves in forging a new nation and subsequently the largest state in the United States of America.

Inspired? Most of the Museum’s permanent galleries are open for photography, and we’d love for you to share your shots with us on Flickr, Facebook or Twitter. Check out the HMNS photo policy for guidelines.

Flickr Meetup! Photography is not allowed in the Texas exhibition during general hours – but we will be hosting a special opportunity for Flickr photographers on Sunday, April 10. Get the details.