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Austin's Cultural Campus

Five different museums create a cultural destination

Photographs, drawings and text from the Harry Ransom Center's collections great visitors from the etched ground-floor windows. (Photo by Michael Amador)


If a collection is greater than the sum of its parts, then aalt collection of museums, that is to say, a collection of collections, might really be something special. That’s what Austin is discovering with its newly designated Cultural Campus, five different museums within walking distance of one another. Four of the museums—the Blanton Museum of Art, the Harry Ransom Center, the LBJ Library and Museum, and the Texas Memorial Museum—are on the University of Texas campus; the fifth museum, the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum, sits just across Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard from the Blanton, between the UT campus and the State Capitol.

Designed as a walking tour, the Cultural Campus is best explored combining two or three of the museums and thinking of them as parts of a whole.

Although each of the individual museums is excellent in its own way, none could, on its own, create the buzz of a true museum district. The notion of creating a synergistic and momentum-building collaboration among the institutions popped up from time to time over the years, but didn’t actually take hold. That has changed, thanks, in part, to two enterprising marketing directors, Timothy Dillon at the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum and Kathleen Brady Stimpert at the Blanton. Dillon, who recently moved from Chicago, proposed that the institutions collaborate on cross promotion, something he’d observed museums accomplishing successfully in Chicago. The Cultural Campus began to take specific shape after a series of formative conversations that underscored the options available for museum-goers. This is designed as a walking tour of the University, Stimpert explains. “We want people to realize that they can come here for movies, shopping, and cafés,” adds Dillon, “not just the museums.”

The Blanton Museum of Art collections offer classical and contemporary work. (Photo by Stan A. Williams)

And even though an in-depth exploration of all five museums makes for a daunting day’s undertaking, some combination of the five individual destinations is guaranteed to match with the most divergent group interests. Combining two or three of the museums and thinking of them as parts of a whole ex--perience adds up to a satisfactory expedition.  And you can create your own sequence of events.

One of the practical determining factors, parking, will take you to one of three starting points: the University parking garage near the Blanton, the garage beneath the Bullock, or the lot behind the LBJ Library. The next practical concern, eating, requires you to consider that the Blanton and the Bullock both operate restaurants. Arrange a visit to one of those museums to coincide with your dining schedule.

If you consider winding up your tour with the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum, you can also start your cultural campus tour by parking in the garage beneath the Bullock History Museum and walking directly across the street to the Blanton Museum of Art.

The Blanton entrance hall leads to ground-floor exhibit galleries and a grand staircase that ascends to the beautiful second-floor exhibition space. The UT collection includes more than 17,000 works of art: an--cient art and European paintings as well as modern and contemporary art. Expect a variety of exhibits, with something different every time you visit. One recent installation included video portraits by experimental theater artist Robert Wilson. Watching these video portraits is like watching very, very slow movies or fast paintings. You wait quite a while for the black panther to twitch its ear.

Leaving the Blanton building’s lobby, you can pick up a card that displays a map for the Cultural Campus. Along with the map, the brochure offers a brief description of each of the five participating institutions. Take the card along as your guide and cross the open courtyard to the Blanton’s administration building, where the museum operates its gift shop along with a sleek, contemporary café befitting an art museum.

If you choose to remain in motion, walk half a block west on Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard, and take a right turn at the first corner onto University Avenue, where you’ll find a fine view of the University of Texas Tower and the monument-lined Main Mall beyond the Littlefield Fountain, designed by Italian sculptor Pompeo Coppini. The tower and fountain are renowned as two of the campus’ most famous landmarks.

 The Harry Ransom Center exhibits include authors’ manu­scripts and ephemera. (Photo by Stan A. Williams)A left turn in front of the fountain and moments later, you’re looking toward the building that houses the Ransom Center. The building dates to the 1970s, but the San Antonio firm of Lake+Flato directed an extensive renovation within the last decade. Now, the ground-floor public spaces are visible through large windows, all etched with an enchanting collection of photographs, drawings, and text from the Ransom collections.

Even with the addition of the beautiful windows, the building resembles a huge, seven-story vault. The vault comparison is appropriate because the Ransom Center holds one of the largest archives of rare books, manuscripts, photography, film, art, and items relating to the performing arts. Founding director Harry Ransom acted on the notion of acquiring the collections, archives, and papers of living writers. In essence, the Ransom Center effectively cornered the 20th-Century market, so that today a biographer or historian writing about an English novelist will likely undertake a pilgrimage to Austin and the Harry Ransom Center to conduct original research.

On the ground floor, the Ransom Center mounts exhibitions from its collection of 45 million items. The Center owns one of the 48 existing Gutenberg Bibles, and the two-volume Bible, bound in polished calfskin, awaits visitors in its permanent display. Johannes Gutenberg revolutionized printing in the 1450s and helped spread knowledge by printing volumes using move-able type, an innova-tion that would make books and literacy relatively common. Just a few steps away, you can see the first photograph, View from the Window at Le Gras, displayed in an airtight steel and Plexiglas case. The photograph was taken by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, circa 1826, and holds a prominent place in the Ransom Center’s fabled Gernsheim Collection of photography.

 The Ransom Center’s reading room, on the second floor, opens to those interested in seeing personal letters, original documents, and photographs first-hand. With appropriate identification and after an orientation session, it is possible to request and personally examine typewritten and annotated manuscripts from the likes of Norman Mailer, James Joyce, Tennessee Williams, and Ezra Pound.

The Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum tells the story of Texas through its exhibits. (Photo by Stan A. Williams)

Once you’re acquainted with the Ransom Center, retrace your steps for a couple of blocks and cross Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard to the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum. By comparison, this museum seems more contemporary.  You’ll notice that the domed museum building references the State Capitol just a few blocks south down Congress Avenue. When you walk into the four-story rotunda with its massive granite staircase, your experience is of the gleaming metal, glass, and stone surfaces that define the building.

The Bullock’s stated mission is to engage the widest possible audience, and to that end, the -museum offers entertainment along with history. As an exhibition-only museum, the Bullock does not hold collections nor does it employ curators. But the Bullock does boast the only IMAX movie theater in Austin, which shows everything from Tron or Avatar to The Rolling Stones concert film, Shine a Light. In a separate “4-D,” three-screen special-effects theater (called the Texas Spirit Theater), viewers feel their seats shake and experience the spray of water while viewing Wild Texas Weather. In addition to its theaters, the museum operates a café and
gift shop, both located on the ground floor off the rotunda. 

At the back of the rotunda, three floors of interactive exhibits tell The Story of Texas (see page 48). This area of the museum is dark and cave-like, an appropriate atmosphere for storytelling. Most of the exhibits appear to be lighted from within rather than above. The first floor is dedicated to Encounters on the Land, “first meetings between Native Americans and European explorers.” Because the museum tells the story of the geo-political entity of Texas, its narrative begins with the arrival  of Europeans and does not venture far into the pre-contact story of Native Americans.

The second floor, Identity, recounts how Texas became a nation, then a state. The third floor, Creating Opportunity, has exhibits dedicated to ranching, oil, and technology. If you sit down in the Oil Tank Theater, one of several mini-theaters scattered throughout the exhibits, you’ll hear the unmistakable voice of Walter Cronkite describing the impact of oil on Texas.

The exhibits are fun and engaging, and children seem to love the place.  If you combine a visit to the Bob Bullock History Museum with an hour or so in the Blanton and a stroll through the Harry Ransom Center, you can put together a full museum experience contained within a couple of city blocks. But there’s more.

The next two member-museums in the Cultural Campus—the LBJ Library and Museum and Texas Memorial Museum—await across the University campus. If you choose to walk through the campus, you can survey the monuments and public spaces along the way. If not, the LBJ Library’s large parking lot is free and easily accessible from Red River Street.

See the library’s archives collection, behind a four-story glass wall, on the fourth floor of the LBJ Library (just up the stairs from this Continental limousine). (Photo by Stan A. Williams)

The LBJ Library, like the Ransom Center, is an immense, vault-like structure. Inaugurated in 1971, it is one of only 13 existing presidential libraries in the United States. The exhibition on the main floor (the building’s third floor) delineates a timeline of President Johnson’s life and presidential administration, contextualized and illustrated with photographs, videos, tape recordings, and music. A black Lincoln Continental limousine parked under a flight of stairs seems an imposing reminder of presidential power and, to those who remember November of 1963, an ominous reminder of what’s to come—the national tragedy that swept Johnson into the White House. When you stop in front of a photograph of Lady Bird Johnson, you hear a recording of her voice, and sense the pain she feels as she recounts how Friday, November 22, 1963, seems forever defined by the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

The timeline steers you through Johnson’s presidential triumphs— the passage of the Civil Rights Act, the Great Society legislation, and the War on Poverty— to the Vietnam War, which was Johnson’s personal downfall and divided the country for decades to come. Presumably operating on the principal of “leave ’em laughing,” the last exhibit of the timeline—LBJ’s Humor—features an animatronic figure of Johnson, dressed in boots and a Stetson, leaning on a white rail fence. If you sit down on a black leather sofa facing the mannequin, the mannequin begins to move slowly, lip-synching recordings of Johnson recounting his favorite stories.

On the fourth floor, up the stairs above the Continental limousine, you can see the library’s archives collection behind a glass wall four stories high. This repository includes 45 million pages of documents in acid-free red storage boxes, each identified with a gold presidential seal. Before leaving, be sure to take an elevator to the 10th floor, where you’ll find a seven-eighths-scale re-creation of the Oval Office as it appeared during Johnson’s Administration, complete with three television screens allowing the then-major networks to play simultaneously.

Outside, the sweeping plaza surrounding the LBJ Library offers a grand view of the oak-dotted museum grounds, an imposing fountain, and the UT campus with the Darrell K. Royal Memorial Stadium. According to UT legend, plans to move the stadium off campus were scrapped once Royal pointed out to LBJ that, during every home game, tens of thousands of football fans would sit for hours looking at the President’s library and museum.

Follow your Cultural Campus map on an easy and pleasant walk just a few blocks west to the Texas Memorial Museum, which houses the Natural Science Center. A newly installed, larger-than-life sculpture of a sabre-toothed cat guards the main entrance to the museum building. The 1930s Art Deco building, a project of the Texas Centennial, is the most architecturally refined and beautiful building on this cultural campus tour.  President Franklin Roosevelt is said to have pushed the button that set off the excavation blast when he visited Austin by train.

Students learn how scientists unearth the mys- teries of extinct creatures. (Photo by Stan A. Williams)

The four floors of exhibitions that make up the Natural Science Center collection feel timeless; there is not much that’s high-tech or interactive about the displays, yet the museum was named Austin’s best for children by Nickelodeon. And it’s easy to understand why. Mother Nature and Father Time are hard to top. One enters the building on the second floor—The Great Hall—lined with cases of gems, minerals, and fossils. Soaring several feet above the floor is a Texas Pterosaur, one of the most famous finds in the history of paleontology and the largest living creature to ever take wing.

Downstairs, you find dinosaurs, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians that roamed present-day Texas during prehistoric time, along with a working paleontology lab. The third-floor Hall of Texas Wildlife preserves the museum’s earlier natural history collection of dioramas depicting predators and prey, such as a puma eating a deer while coyotes stand watching.  The fourth floor is dedicated to biodiversity and evolution. Outside and just a few steps north of the museum sits a small structure that encloses a set of dinosaur tracks excavated from the limestone bed of the Paluxy River near Glen Rose.

And that’s a wrap on the quick tour of Austin’s, and the University’s, Cultural Campus. It’s an imposing collection of collections in which you can experience fine art, thousands of years of natural history, centuries of the state’s history, impressive documents of literary history, and a decisive chapter of the nation’s history, within the space of a few hours and by means of a leisurely stroll.  

From the May 2011 issue.

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