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Stamps of Approval

The Bullock Texas State History Museum Animates Our people, Places, and Potential
Written by Gene Fowler.

(Photos by J. Griffis Smith)

My parents went to the Texas Centennial Exposition, and all they brought me were these six miniature Centennial stamps. Not that I’m upset: Artifacts and images relating to Texas’ 100th birthday celebration, held in Dallas in 1936, make a great starting point for learning about Texas history.

I was delighted then, on a recent visit to the Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin, to see in its gift shop a collection of poster-size reproductions of the stamps, which were produced in 1986 to help commemorate the Texas Sesquicentennial, the state’s 150th birthday.

As savvy brand enhancers, the 1936 birthday planners emblazoned “Texas Centennial” on just about everything. Collectible examples displayed in exhibits at the Bullock Museum include a Centennial pillow, juice glass, songbook, license plate, and deck of cards. A one-of-a-kind Texas Centennial folk art carving, created by Fannie Bruce Shaw of Van Alstyne and roughly 4 1/2 feet tall, features such iconography as a cotton boll, a courthouse, Alamo heroes, a covered wagon, and the six flags of Texas. Displayed at the 1936 exposition and on loan to the Bullock Museum, the quirky work of art fulfills the museum’s mission of telling the stories of Texas as deftly as any of the hundreds of rare artifacts on display.

Located five blocks north of the Texas Capitol, the Bullock Museum’s stately visage is faced with Sunset Red granite from the same Burnet County quarry that provided stone for the 1888 statehouse. A copper dome atop the museum adds another stroke of pomp, and a 33-foot, 10-ton bronze lone star on the plaza out front stands like a mythic shout-out of global positioning.

As savvy brand enhancers, the 1936 birthday planners emblazoned “Texas Centennial” on just about everything.

Inside, past the rotunda with its beautiful terrazzo floor and expansive lobby, three stories of galleries, wrapped around a central atrium, tell the big story of a big state from the prehistoric era to the space age.

Texas Centennial StampEach floor explores a separate theme, starting with “Encounters on the Land” on the first floor, which chronicles Native American lifeways and interaction with Europeans. On the second floor, “Building the Lone Star Identity” animates the story of the Texas Revolution and Texas’ passage from independent republic to American state. “Creating Opportunity,” on the third floor, illustrates the bounty of Texas 
agriculture and the oil-boom story that has so helped define the state’s character.

Though the narrative sweeps through the galleries with giant strides, intriguing details relate the story on a human scale. A small copper coin on display, for instance, minted by José Antonio de la Garza with permission of the Spanish governor of early San Antonio, represents the only known coins issued under Spanish rule in the continental United States. According to museum signage, the star on the coin may be the first usage of the five-pointed “lone star.”

Another gallery reproduces the 1840 petition of freed slave Fanny McFarland to the Republic of Texas Congress. According to the Texas Constitution of 1836, freed slaves were not allowed to remain in the new nation. McFarland’s petition to stay was denied, but she put down roots anyway, becoming one of Houston’s first real-estate developers.

Texas Centennial StampThe Bullock Museum is not a collecting institution, and artifacts lent by other repositories come and go from its galleries, so visitors always find something new. Through November, for example, you can see the Stetson worn by African-American rodeo star Bill Pickett, which he purchased in 1925 from the Rose Dry Good Co. of Wills Point.

Throughout the galleries, mini-theaters offer short programs that expand visitors’ grasp of exhibit themes. A period newsreel film in the “Centennial Theater” shows the grounds and attractions at Dallas’ Fair Park in 1936 and includes a lively greeting from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Back on the first floor, the Albert and Ethel Herzstein Hall of Special Exhibitions hosts temporary exhibits, such as the upcoming Extreme Mammals: The Biggest, Smallest, and Most Amazing Mammals of All Time, which opens November 23. Created by the American Museum of Natural History in New York, this show will be the largest exhibition in the museum’s history.

On the third floor, Views of the Capitol: 125 Years in the Making is currently on view through December, and a year from now, the museum will exhibit La Belle: The Ship That Changed History, featuring the excavated and stabilized remains of the hull from a 17th-Century French vessel that sank in Matagorda Bay.

Meanwhile, I’m already looking for my next Bullock Museum souvenir. I’ve got my eye on a dramatic black T-shirt printed with that caustic quote attributed to Davy Crockett, “You can all go to hell, and I’ll go to Texas.”

The Bullock Texas State History Museum is at 1800 N. Congress Ave. in Austin. Call 512/936-8746. On the first Sunday of every month, museum admission is free.

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