No ideas but in things.
Imagine for a moment that you could bring together in one location the collections of every museum in Texas containing artifacts that pertain to the state’s history. In one enormous hall, stretching as far as the eye could see, would be gathered every piece of clothing, weaponry, art, machinery, and furniture left behind by prior generations of Texans. The stuff would come from not only the big museums that you’ve heard of—the Alamo and the Witte Museum, in San Antonio; the San Jacinto historic site, in La Porte; the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum, in Canyon; the Bullock State History Museum, in Austin; the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame, in Fort Worth—but the many small museums scattered around the state, places like the New Dime Box Czech Heritage Museum, the Wolf Creek Heritage Museum, the Brush Country Museum, and the Pelham Community History Museum. Texas has an unusually high number of these museums, in part because it has so many counties and in part because of the zeal of its local historians. Our imaginary mega-collection would contain all the objects housed in these out-of-the-way galleries, as well as the sundry relics that reside in our public libraries, hospitals, government buildings, stadiums, private businesses, presidential libraries, and universities. The whole of Texas history would be there to be explored, one piece at a time.
A reverie similar to this one is what underlies the new Artifact column, which debuts this month. The concept is simple: What if you could select an item from that fantastical reliquary and hear the story behind it—not just where it came from but how it had been preserved, and by whom? This is, more or less, what our Artifact page will endeavor to do. It will be researched and written by Lonn Taylor, a former Smithsonian historian who was raised in Fort Worth and who now lives in Fort Davis. Lonn is no stranger to this sort of thing. In 2008 he published a book about the great garrison flag that became the subject of our National Anthem. And he has an impressive sense of the secret treasures of Texas’s museums (though I bet he’d be happy to hear your suggestions too).
We aren’t the first to embark on a project like this. There’s been a recent spate following the success of the British Museum’s 2010 BBC radio show A History of the World in 100 Objects. But Texas history is so grand, and its artifacts so widely dispersed, that we think Lonn’s page will be fascinating and useful (I would wager that not many readers of texas monthly had previously seen this month’s artifact, Santa Anna’s chamber pot). It is accompanied, in some sense, by another regular feature that debuts this month, Julia Suits’s Old News. Julia, a cartoonist, will be selecting curious items from bygone stories in Texas newspapers and illustrating them. Together, Artifact and Old News are meant to provide a contrapuntal historical note in the midst of our monthly investigations of life in contemporary Texas. Not only does the past have much to teach us, it has much that can entertain as well.