June 21st, 2011

Texas! The Exhibition: Of Cannonade and Sword Clashes

Anyone who likes money should go see the new Texas! The Exhibition at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. The sheer volume of currency and promissory notes on display is staggering, and most walls bear at least one display case full of coins or checks.

Unfortunately, I’m not a huge fan of money (that’s why I’m a writer). But the Texas! exhibit still offers a wide array of foundational history. It begins with a general overview of Texas’ Native American tribes and, although the text in this section is interesting, the artifacts on display seem rather mundane, aside from some awe-inspiring pine needle pottery.

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The exhibit really starts to shine once the Spanish arrive on the scene. The marketing for the exhibit boasts about artifacts from La Salle’s fleet. Unfortunately, most of these are tableware. There are also some generic period armaments in this section, but the stars are the journals and coinage. The original pesos are worth seeing simply because they’re so primitive. There are also dubloons and pieces-of-eight for any Pirates of the Caribbean fans.

The mission era display is of similar quality and has useful explanatory text on the walls throughout. The real standout here is the religious vestments, which would certainly be worth a picture if photography were allowed. Alas, it is not, so I was left to meander around like a hipster jerk with my camera fashionably slung across my shoulder. There’s more money here too.

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After the mission era room, however, the coherence of the exhibit starts to break down. The Mexican independence section includes several informative placards, but they reference each other, and there is no clear order in which to read them. I was often left thinking, “Who the hell is this guy and why is he so important?” Sometimes I eventually found another reference to explain the importance of said guy. Sometimes I didn’t.

Finally, in the adjoining path, Stephen F. Austin comes barreling into the exhibit. If you like good old SFA’s signature and handwriting, you’ll love the exhibit. There are a lot of founding documents for Texas, including original charters. There’s also Austin’s map, which is worth seeing if you haven’t before. I secretly hope to have a map like that one day so I can say, “The big block in the middle is mine. That tiny part is my buddy’s. All this pink part will get you killed.”

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It’s worth noting that here the money displays take a turn to promissory notes and checks, which are occasionally explained or legible. Strange tax rules are discussed in some of the descriptions, but I never fully grasped them. I suspect they are just as impenetrable as current tax law. However, it’s possible I missed the explanation in one of the monetary displays because this was the point at which I began to simply skim them.

I finally reached the Texas Revolution section, which is rather large. All of the high points of the revolution are hit: Come and Take It, Victory or Death, and the San Jacinto banner. I spent as much time here as I could, and one could easily lose an hour to it if not for one niggling detail. There’s a 30-second soundtrack. Of cannonade and sword clashes. On loop. Constantly. It could be a nice atmospheric addition, but at its current length, the sound was nothing short of maddening.

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This section ends with my personal favorite part of the exhibit. They have one of Santa Anna’s uniform vests. Normally, I wouldn’t be impressed with a standard vest, but this vest is far from standard. I recognized the pattern immediately because it was the same as my grandmother’s flowery mumu. I secretly hoped that the entire exhibit would be about Stephen F. Austin being a badass, and there was quite a bit of that, but the crowning realization of the day came when I realized that Santa Anna could be a bastard even while wearing pastel flower prints.

The Texas independence and incorporation segment of the exhibit is heavy on documents, but it does a good job of chronicling the time period. One of my favorite bits is the display on Sam Houston’s relationship with the Native Americans. The diplomatic artifacts of incorporation into the United States are also worth perusing for anyone who likes political history. This section also has a soundtrack, but the music here is a jaunty saloon tune, which is far more pleasant than a constant battlefield din.

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Following that is a rather disjointed section on statehood. It covers all the bases, such as cowboys, Texas Rangers, the Civil War, and Juneteenth. The history of revolvers seems to be a common thread as well. I learned that, in its early history, the revolver was mostly championed by Texans. I also didn’t know that the original revolvers were enormous to the point of being small baseball bats.

The exhibit ends with Spindletop and the oil boom, which seems to have catapulted Texas into the modern era. The section is short, but still relatively refreshing after the parade of more typical historical details. I don’t remember any money in this section either, though I could be mistaken. It was closing time, so I didn’t have enough time to fully explore. Thorough perusers should plan to spend at least 2 hours in the exhibit. Cruisers will probably only spend about an hour, but may miss some of the important documents.

If you want to see historical documents pertaining to both everyday life and the foundation of Texas, you would be hard pressed to find a better venue than the Texas! exhibit. Similarly, any numismatist should consider the exhibit a must-see. People not raised in Texas will undoubtedly find the exhibit engaging and informative, if a bit disjointed at times. Native Texans may not take away as much, but it is nice to see the actual artifacts that occupied the pictures of your Texas History textbook.

Words and witticisms by Zach

— The Loop Scoop

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