UT’s Briscoe Center now a place of history for everyone

11:00 p.m Tuesday, April 11, 2017 Austin360
Tamir Kalifa
The remodeled Briscoe Center for American History now features several thousand feet of exhibition space, which is currently being utilized for a temporary exhibit showcasing artifacts from the Briscoe Center’s Southern History collections. TAMIR KALIFA/AMERICAN-STATESMAN

“We are not a museum,” Don Carleton, director of the Briscoe Center for American History, stated bluntly during a ribbon-cutting ceremony last week for his splendidly renovated research facility on the University of Texas campus. “At the same time, we can now share some of our treasures.”

Perhaps Carleton didn’t want potential visitors to confuse his UT center — located across the plaza from the LBJ Presidential Library — with the Briscoe Western Art Museum in San Antonio. As you might have guessed, both were endowed by the legacy-minded late Texas Gov. Dolph Briscoe and his wife, Janey.

Or maybe the word “museum” is temporarily out of style.

UT’s handsome new exhibition spaces, however, look very much like a historical museum. And a very good one. Large enough to occupy the inquisitive visitor for more than an hour, yet small enough not to exhaust the senses. And they make a fine same-day pairing with the more extensive LBJ Library offerings found a few steps away.

Missing: a small outdoor cafe or coffee shop to bolster visitors between engrossing stops.

The heart of the Briscoe is the contoured, comfortable and up-to-date new reading room — natural light bathes the place — where students and scholars, as well as anyone curious about history, can delve deep into the center’s archives on the American South and Southwest, its stores of journalism and photojournalism and other collecting strengths.

No matter how central that research role, this is going to be a spot that anyone with a shred of interest in matters historical, especially regarding Texas, will regularly gravitate to, as the first major exhibition, Exploring the American South: The Briscoe Center’s Southern History Collections, plainly demonstrates.

What to see

One enters through the breezeway shared with the LBJ School of Public Affairs, a public gateway much more enticing than the previous out-of-the-way entrance. A welcoming vestibule leads one to 4,000 square feet of display space, a vast improvement over the past arrangement, in which Briscoe gems were hung in a hallway that led to the restrooms.

Directly ahead — although partially hidden by a room divider — is Pompeo Coppini’s controversial statue of Confederate President Jeff Davis, removed from UT’s South Mall not so long ago and now given careful historical context.

RELATED: Jefferson Davis statue returns to the University of Texas.

Just beyond is a small room given over to selections from the Weatherby Map Collection, a must-see for lovers of historical cartography. The first exhibit focuses on North America, with several glimpses of Texas at various stages.

In the current configuration, one could then backtrack to enter the primary exhibit, which draws from collections put together by UT professors starting in the 1880s, immediately after founding of the university. Historical tidbit: All the original organizers of UT hailed from universities in the South.

UT started actively collecting Southern history in 1914, thanks to a gift from Confederate veteran and university regent George Littlefield, the same donor who, in the early 20th century, contended that the Coppini-designed memorial fountain and statues, including the one of Davis, honor those who fought in the Civil War as well as the more recent World War I.

Many artifacts chosen for the inaugural exhibition come from the center’s Natchez Trace Collection, so it is natural that the visitor first sees a large map of the Mississippi Territory, which was later divided into the states of Alabama and Mississippi. The Trace was the dry inland route through this area, originally blazed by Native Americans. It became a major pathway for settlers headed to Texas.

Right away, the curators emphasize the intertwined enterprises of slavery and cotton cultivation in the Deep South. They also provide concrete evidence of the military’s role in taking the land violently away from the Native Americans.

Artifacts related to slavery start with a 1775 receipt for slaves delivered to Montego Bay in Jamaica; a 1788 receipt for two enslaved children born in Africa; and a 1785 court document involving slave ownership. Another batch of material relates to claims to land and the surveys that made them, in the European-American system, legal.

There is much on view about cotton financing, planting and trading, especially in the period before the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861. It is easy to get lost in the lists of slaves, bills of sale, abolitionist letters, five-pound leg irons, descriptions of slave auctions and flyers seeking the capture and return of runaway slaves. Intriguingly, there is also evidence of the activities of free people of color — including early efforts to urge them to immigrate to Liberia — and a West Baton Rouge emancipation document.

Side note: If this exhibit sparks questions about the institution of slavery, head a few blocks to the southwest to the Bullock Texas State History Museum. In the upper rotunda gallery, you will find an excellent display covering the New Orleans slave trade.

Another section of the Briscoe’s exhibition deals with steamboats and ferries in a time when rivers were the primary movers of people and goods. There are also artifacts from the region’s early railroads. The daily life of Southerners is represented by textbooks, school contracts, medical reports, an inventory of household items, a record book for obstetric cases, tax receipts, accounting records, some hairwork jewelry and some amazingly well preserved items of clothing.

The Texas references start with an account of yellow fever in Galveston during the period of the Republic, an 1844 campaign ribbon opposing the annexation of Texas and a pen used to sign the U.S. congressional resolution annexing Texas in 1845.

The section on the Civil War begins, rightly, with the Texas Ordinance of Secession from 1861.

“A separately issued Declaration of Causes stressed the need to defend slavery in perpetuity,” the wall text reads. “Although many Texans, including Governor Sam Houston, opposed secession, the overwhelming support for secession indicated the level of public fervor.”

Other items include patriotic war envelopes, a powder horn, a blueprint of a battlefield map, soldiers’ letters home, a Confederate uniform jacket, an encoded telegram, a broadside, a muster call and, yes, the bullet that killed Confederate Gen. Ben McCulloch in 1862 as well as his funeral preparations. He lies in Austin’s Texas State Cemetery.

A symbolic find: A dual diary.

“The Civil War field diary kept by Union Corporal Mahlon W. Barber recorded camp life and troop movements from Jan. 1 to April 7, 1864,” the description reads. “After Barber’s death at Sabine Crossroads, La., the diary was picked up and resumed on April 9 by Confederate Private C.S. Durning.”

The Lost Cause

Further sections deal with Reconstruction and the later Lost Cause movement.

“Gradually, a specific public memory within the region emerged and coalesced around the nature of antebellum society, the institution of slavery, the Confederate position in the Civil War, and the subsequent Confederate loss,” reads an introductory passage. “Popular among Confederate veterans, the Lost Cause grew into a mythology that persists into the 21st century, largely through public memorials, statuary and symbols and through popular culture such as the 1939 film classic ‘Gone With the Wind.’”

For the anti-black Jim Crow era, a poll tax sign and a ballot box recall suppression of the African-American vote for almost a century after Emancipation. Crucially, other items from the period include first-person narratives of former slaves collected during the 1930s.

It is appropriate that the last section grapples with the South’s romanticized Lost Cause, echoed today by those who insist that the Civil War was not about slavery — despite the explicit language found in numerous documents related to secession — but rather about states’ rights.

Returning to the area outside the main room, we are reminded of Littlefield’s lifelong dedication to the Lost Cause, embodied in the statues he commissioned for UT of American leaders who, from President George Washington to President Woodrow Wilson, unswervingly insisted on upholding white supremacy.

With the opening of this renovated space, the Briscoe Center becomes a true and necessary public gathering place alongside Austin’s established literary, historical and art museums, which seem to multiply by the month.

And yes, it is the sort of museum that doesn’t shy away from the darkest chapters of our shared history even as it celebrates the brightest.

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