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  At least, that what struck me as I recently read this historical document.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.

Texas Exhibition! Spotlight on Sam Houston

You can’t miss him if you’re traveling Interstate 45 near Huntsville. He towers over the surrounding land, continuing to watch his beloved Texas, from a height of 67 feet. Who was the man for whom this giant statue was built?

Sam Houston was born on March 2, 1793, in Rockbridge County, Tennessee. He only attended a local school for six months. Houston moved with his mother and brothers to Eastern Tennessee at the age of 13 when his father died.

Rebelling against his older brothers’ attempts to get him to work the family farm and in the family store, Houston ran away to live with the Cherokee Indians. Adopted by Chief Oolooteka, he lived with the Cherokee Indians for three years and was known as “the Raven.” This close relationship would forever affect Houston’s feelings towards Indians.

Houston joined the United States Army when war broke out with the British. During this service he received three wounds that were nearly fatal. General Andrew Jackson recognized Houston’s bravery and Houston became a staunch Jackson supporter. While healing from his wounds, he was appointed a sub-Indian agent and helped Chief Oolooteka’s tribe settle west of the Mississippi.

Houston later opened a law practice in Lebanon, Tennessee. With Jackson’s support, he became a colonel in the state militia. In late 1818, Sam Houston was elected attorney general of Nashville, but later returned to his private law practice in the early 1820s.

Elected to the United States House of Representatives in 1823, Houston worked unsuccessfully to get Andrew Jackson elected President of the United States. Sam was re-elected to Congress for a second and third term, followed by a successful bid for the Governorship of Tennessee.

In grief over the breakup of his 11-week marriage, Houston crossed the Mississippi River and headed to Indian Territory. For another 3 years, Houston again lived with Chief Oolooteka’s Cherokee tribe in Oklahoma. He married a Cherokee woman and became active in Indian affairs, attempting to maintain peace among Indian tribes. After he thrashed Ohio Representative William Stanberry with his cane over an Indian tribe conflict, Houston was tried, reprimanded and fined for the assault. He left his Cherokee family and entered Mexican Texas.

He immediately got involved in Anglo-Texan affairs, serving as a delegate to the Convention of 1833. As unrest grew in Mexican Texas, he considered whether there should be another consultation to attempt to resolve the issues. By October he believed that war between Texas and Mexico was inevitable. In early November, Houston was appointed as the major general of the Texas army. On March 2, 1836, the assembly at Washington-on-the-Brazos adopted the Texas Declaration of Independence.

On March 6, 1836, the Alamo fell to the Mexican Army under General Santa Anna. In the meantime, Sam Houston returned from Washington-on-the-Brazos to his army in Gonzales and they retreated towards the east. The citizens of Gonzales soon followed on foot, burning their town and whatever belongings they couldn’t carry. They wanted nothing left in Gonzales to help Santa Anna’s army.  Many were worried about Houston’s retreat, fearing that he was afraid of Santa Anna’s strength and feeling that their men had died at the Alamo in vain.

However, Sam Houston needed time to train his newly-formed, poorly-trained volunteer army.  The Battle of San Jacinto on April 21, 1836, proved General Sam Houston’s ability to lead his army to victory. Santa Anna’s army was defeated in an 18-minute battle, and he was captured the following day.

Sam Houston at the Battle of San Jacinto 
Painting by Harry Arthur McArdle (1836-1908)

Sam Houston became the first elected president of the Republic of Texas, defeating Stephen F. Austin. He served as the Republic’s president for two terms. In late 1836, Sam Houston sent prisoner-of-war Santa Anna to Washington to seek Texas’s annexation to the United States.

According to its constitution, Sam Houston was unable to succeed himself as President of the Republic of Texas, so he ran for and served in the House of Representatives from 1839-1841. He defeated then-President Mirabeau B. Lamar, and again became President of the Republic of Texas in 1841, serving until 1844.  When Texas joined the Union in 1845, Sam Houston served as one of its two U.S. Senators.

Houston was defeated the first time he ran for the office of Governor of Texas, but won the election in 1859. A slave owner himself, Houston opposed secession from the U.S. and was removed from office when he refused to take the oath of loyalty to the new Confederate States of America. He moved with family to Huntsville, Texas, and died there on July 23, 1863.

Texas! Exhibition: Spotlight on Stephen F. Austin

Last week Melodie wrote a blog asking how much you knew about Texas. As we prepare for the opening of our new exhibition Texas! Making History Since 1519, we are dedicated to helping you learn more about the great Lone Star State. So today, Amanda Norris and Pat Dietrich, youth educators at the museum, write to you about Stephen F. Austin.

Stephen F. Austin – general store employee, lead mine manager, circuit judge, diplomat, empresario, and Father of Texas!

The Father of Texas…Is Born

Stephen F. Austin was born in 1793 in Virginia. His parents sent him at an early age to be educated in Connecticut and then later in Kentucky. After he graduated he moved to be with his family in Missouri to work in his father’s general store and manage his lead mine. He later became a circuit judge in Arkansas. After his father unexpectedly passed away, Stephen decided to carry out his father’s vision by moving to Mexican Texas and establishing a settlement.

Stephen F. Austin: Explorer

In 1821, he traveled to San Antonio where the governor authorized his efforts to explore the Texas land between the San Antonio and Brazos Rivers.  Stephen then visited New Orleans and invited colonists to settle on land between the Colorado and Brazos Rivers in Mexican Texas. By December of 1821, many settlers had arrived. However, the new Mexican government, created after Mexico’s independence from Spain on August 24, 1821, denied Austin’s land grant (which was in his father’s name).

The Old Three Hundred

As a result of this new development, Stephen Austin traveled to San Antonio to get approval for his own settlement. He was appointed as an empresario and approved to establish 300 families. He fulfilled his initial contract for 300 families within a few years of his first grant approval. He would later receive contracts for 300 more families in 1825, 1827, and 1828. While they were under Mexican government authority, it was his job to maintain a settlement with people who would be good Mexican citizens. After the Constitution of Coahuila and Texas in November of 1827, Stephen F. Austin turned over authority of his settlement to the Mexican government.

Austin attempted to provide protection for his colonists, many of whom had moved from the United States to escape debts incurred there during difficult economic times. He helped pass a state law that prevented the U.S. from collecting these debts for a period of 12 years. He organized trade ports between the colonists and Mexico. Even though he helped protect his colonists, he never let them forget the benefits of being loyal Mexican citizens.

More Settlers Arrive…In Droves

By 1832, more empresarios established settlements around Stephen F. Austin’s original settlement near the Colorado and Brazos, the families there being dubbed “The Old 300.” With so many U.S. settlers in Mexican Texas, it became difficult for Stephen to continue his overly cautious form of leadership.

The United States wanted to buy Texas, which made the Mexican government nervous about so many U.S. settlers in their country. In response to the perceived threat, the Mexican government passed the Law of April 6, 1830 which disallowed immigrants to move from the United States to Mexican Texas.  The Mexican army was sent to the established settlements throughout Texas to enforce the new law. Stephen F. Austin sided with Santa Anna against the current Governor of Mexico in hopes of gaining his support and maintaining the peace in Texas.

Agitated Colonists

The agitated colonists met at a convention in 1832 to inform the Mexican government about their needs. They requested the repeal of the Law of 1830, no more tariffs, separation from Coahuila, and to be able to set up a state government in Texas. Stephen F. Austin hoped the Mexican government would recognize the need for change, but they did not.

A second convention was organized in 1833; this group asked for what had been requested in 1832, but they also wanted a constitution to be written for the state of Texas. Stephen F. Austin set out for San Antonio to obtain a repeal of the Law of April 1830. Santa Anna disagreed with his actions and had Austin arrested and imprisoned. He was released in December of 1834.

Austin sanctioned the call for a consultation, where delegates would be elected on November 3. Meanwhile, war had broken out in Gonzales on October 1, when Santa Anna sent his army to retrieve a cannon given to the city for defense against neighboring Indians.

Battle Against Santa Anna

Stephen F. Austin, elected to command the volunteer army, led his volunteers in a battle against Santa Anna in San Antonio. In November, the provisional government elected him and others to serve as commissioners to the United States. He returned to Texas in June of 1836, two months after the Battle of San Jacinto. He ran against acting President David Burnet and the Commander of the Texas Army, Sam Houston, but was defeated by the Commander. Austin was appointed Secretary of State by President Sam Houston, a post he would only serve for two months before his death.

Henry Arthur McArdle interpretation of the Battle of San Jacinto.

On December 27, 1843, Stephen F. Austin died at the age of 43. His determination, strong management, and leadership helped shape the Texas wilderness into the state we know today. For these efforts, he is known as the Father of Texas.

Learn even more about Texas in our new exhibition, opening to the public on March 6, 2011. Get a sneak peak at the exhibition during our Texas VIP Nite, March 2 from 6 to 8 p.m. And stay tuned to the blog as we highlight other important people and events throughout the run of the show.

Hey Texan! What do YOU know about the Lone Star State?

I recently saw Carol Burnett on an episode of Glee. I’ve always adored her, but this time I felt especially close to her because I just learned that she’s from Texas. Who knew? I’m a native Texan too. And I discovered our relation while taking a quiz to test my knowledge on Texas.

No, I’m not secretly a 4th or 7th grade student (all of whom are required by the state to take Texas history!) But I am excited to announce the Houston Museum of Natural Science’s next special exhibition, Texas! Making History Since 1519 on Sunday, March 6.

As you are undoubtedly aware, Texas has a history as large as the state itself! This exhibit will explore the unique roles that Texas has played: as a Spanish colony, as part of the Mexican Frontera, as an independent Republic, and as the 28th state to join the Union. Visitors will explore Texas’ rich legacy of perseverance, determination, diverse heritage and unique spirit through the stories of its central events and famous icons.

As it happens, we have an outstanding former Texas history teacher here at the Museum, Amanda Norris, who developed a quiz that we could put online for people to see how much they know about our great state. Then, I thought it would be fun to test my own knowledge and asked my colleagues to join me.

Texas Quiz!
Here we go!

We gathered around the table in the Marketing office on a Friday afternoon and took the test. If you’re a native Texan, or even just “got here as soon as you could,” you might think you’d pass this quiz with flying colors. We certainly did! Out of 11, eight of us were born and raised in Texas (and presumably completed the required 2 years of Texas history required by state education standards) and we’re proud of it!

But when Amanda passed out the quiz and gave us the thumbs up to begin answering the questions, some us looked puzzled immediately after the first question. I didn’t recall learning some of the information presented on the quiz in Texas History class. Or maybe I just missed the day we covered “famous Texan entertainers.” Needless to say, this is when I learned Carol Burnett is a native Texan, amongst many other things.

Texas Quiz!
Amanda calls out the questions.

With deep sadness in my Texas sized heart, I admit I didn’t do well on the quiz.

However, there’s always, always someone who has to get a perfect score and ruin the grading curve. That would be Vanessa Garcia from our group. She made a perfect 100. Now when I see her I call out, “Little Miss Perfect!”

Texas Quiz!
Vanessa holds up her perfect score!

But I learned that Texas has centuries of rich history I never knew about – even after living here for decades! Which made me wonder…how much do you know about Texas? We headed into the Grand Hall at the Museum to find out.

Can’t see the video? Click Here.

Very surprising results! Now – I challenge you to take our quiz to see how much you know!

Then, come to the Houston Museum of Natural Science to meet legendary Texas icons such as Stephen F. Austin, Sam Houston and Davy Crockett and bask in the glory of fascinating Texas artifacts, including the “Come and Take It” cannon; the Juneteenth Order; Battle Standard #4, the flag that flew over the decisive Battle of San Jacinto and Sam Houston’s report on the Battle, which includes the phrase “Remember the Alamo,” dated April 25, 1836.

Texas! The Exhibition opens Sunday March 6!