A Letter from America VI: History Museums in Austin & New Orleans, with Dining Advice (July)

From the Antiquarian Book Review

Anyone who has worked their way through some American book barns will be familiar with the works of Elbert Hubbard; small volumes printed by the Roycrofters, bound in a yucky brown suede which time has powdered into one of the most clinging residues in bookdom.  Hubbard, known to his contemporaries as “the Fra,” was a fine old fraud who affected flowing white locks, knee boots, and a message of sunshine for his readers, which was only stilled when he went down on the Lusitania in 1915.  Well before that, he had hit a magic formula for publishing success: a series of visits to the great, the famous, and the merely very rich, which he wrote up as “Little Journeys to Great Businessmen” or to “Great Thinkers,” and so forth.  “The Fra” is long gone, but I am taking up the torch with some “Little Journeys to Great Libraries and History Museums .”

This spring I took a quick trip to Louisiana and Texas to buy and sell a few books and investigate the difficult question of who makes the best muffaletta in New Orleans .  A giant sandwich conceived in the Italian community of the Crescent City , the muffaletta draws its old aficionados back to its roots as baccarat players return to Monte Carlo .  The two central pillars of the tradition are the Central Market, which claims primacy of creation, and the Napoleon House at the corner of Chartres and St. Louis where you also get a pickle and olive on the side in the bar many locals consider the best in town.  Frankly, it’s a toss-up which is better, but it is only a two-block walk (no easy task if you’ve eaten a whole muffaletta) to the first of my little journeys, the museum of Louisiana history in the Old Cabildo on Jackson  Square in the French Quarter.

To get to the point (having had lunch), one of the sidebars of my trip was to see two new museums that offer radically different approaches to the narration of history and the use of rare books and documents to do so: the museum at the Cabildo, and the new Texas History Museum in Austin.  The contrasts were surprising.

The Cabildo itself is of great historical interest, the former government building of colonial Louisiana .  Plowing through the mass of hung-over tourists having their fortunes told and chalk portraits done just outside, it is hard to find the actual entrance.  No effort is made to court the huge number of visitors to the French Quarter, and inside the displays are determinedly high-minded and unsuited for the average gawker.   Louisiana history is narrated in a series of excessively long wall texts, all excellent and cogent in themselves, but fatiguing to read and overwhelming in total.  Many displayed artifacts (books, manuscripts, printed illustrations) seldom appear in the original, but are almost entirely present in reproduction.  Clearly a decision was taken that seeing an original map or print was not as important as seeing an original cotton bale – a surprising conclusion given the erudite but text-heavy presentation of the labels and narrative.  Yearning for a few original documents and stunned by the prose and the muffaletta, I staggered out into Jackson Square to be accosted by a transvestite who wanted to tell my fortune.  Only a trip to the excellent Crescent City Books on Chartres Street brought me back to bookish reality.

A few days later I was in Austin , Texas , having breakfast with a friend who played a leading role in creating the exhibits at the new Texas History Museum .  Funded by the State, but with the caveat that it had to become self-supporting, the Museum is a creation of the disparate visions of politicians and historians in what sounds like a recipe for disaster.  My friend, one of the historians, narrated the process as he dug into his huevos rancheros.  “It wasn’t easy,” he said.  “We wanted to put a windmill – the perfect image of the High Plains – in the central atrium, but Gov. Bush’s watchdog on the committee fought us tooth and nail.  Why?  Because windmills represent an alternative energy source.  They wanted more on petroleum.”

Arriving at the Museum was no more reassuring – a huge new structure with a giant Texas Lone Star in bronze on the front of the building and a lobby packed with screaming families willing to pay eight dollars a head to view the spectacle.  My first impression was that the “Disneyfication” of history had come at last, especially after the 3-D theatre extravaganza that introduced us to the theme of Texas as the Land of Opportunity .  Fra Elbert would have been proud as the giant image of Sam Houston told us the Civil War had its good side.  “After that, the slaves were freed,” he intoned, “and then they had the same opportunities as all Texas .”  Yeah.

But as we moved through the exhibits I decided the historians had done their work well.  Original documents borrowed from the Texas State Library, the Barker History Center at the University of Texas , and private collectors, were woven through the whole museum.  Here were real maps, real prints, the actual broadsides and letters that had made Texas history.  Not just on view, but being seen – hundred of thousands of people have been through the Museum so far.  Maybe it wasn’t my ideal overall, but the glitzy popular culture parts served as the lure to expose people to the real stuff, and they were clearly fascinated by it as well as Davy Crockett.  As he might have said, there’s more than one way to skin a cat.  And as it says on a big signed by the door, “God Bless Texas .”

– William Reese