Making History

After more than 40 years of housing America’s historical treasures, the Briscoe Center for American History is preparing for one of its greatest undertakings—one that comes from across campus.

Making History

On Aug. 13, 2015, after months of tension over the fate of the university’s eight-foot bronze statue of Jefferson Davis, after graffiti and protests and boldfaced headlines from Austin to Ferguson to Charleston, UT president Greg Fenves addressed the campus community.

“All history is controversial,” he wrote. “Over time, our perspective on historical figures has evolved, and we have made significant progress in overcoming the legacy of that era, as well as our own history as a segregated university. At the same time, it is the role of a university to study, interpret, and teach history, which can inform the present and guide us in the future.”

Fenves had decided to move the Davis statue to the university’s Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, where it could be studied, displayed, and contextualized. This prompted many to wonder: What, exactly, is the Briscoe Center?

American humorist and well-known curmudgeon H.L. Mencken once defined historians as unsuccessful novelists. Cynical though he was, the Sage of Baltimore may not have been so far off. Historians, by and large, are in the process of piecing together a narrative of past events. Like a journalist or a detective, they analyze clues and draw conclusions. They tell stories.

“The story is everything,” Don Carleton says. As the center’s executive director, he knows a thing or two about the practice of history. Context is required to tell a good story, to give depth and meaning to historical fact. You can admire the emotional impact of the twisted, overlapping angles of Picasso’s Guernica, but the painting takes on new meaning when you know that the bombing of the eponymous Basque village was one of the first uses of modern airpower against helpless civilians, or that the painting’s international acclaim brought global attention to the atrocities of the Spanish Civil War.

Although it lacks the name recognition and the visitor numbers of the Harry Ransom Center or the Blanton Museum of Art, the Briscoe is a campus gem. A treasure trove of historical context, it’s rich with the kinds of artifacts that help students write papers, faculty members write articles, authors write books, and filmmakers craft documentaries. It specializes in topics like photography, the South, the American West, and Texas history, but also has respectable collections ranging from the Civil Rights movement to quilting. And while its quilt collections probably won’t top the International Quilt Study Center and Museum at the University of Nebraska, it’s another credit to the Briscoe’s tremendous skill at cataloging, caretaking, and displaying artificats that, with time, become the building blocks of history.

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Those building blocks reside not only in the collections on campus, but also at a museum in Uvalde named for former Texas governor Dolph Briscoe, BA ’43, and fellow Uvalde native and FDR’s vice president John Nance Garner; at another museum in Bonham for 16-year U.S. House speaker Sam Rayburn; and at a historical property in Winedale, the site of UT’s long-running Shakespeare at Winedale program.

“We gather the evidence of the past,” Carleton says. “That’s our main job.” With such a wealth of information—including more than 6 million photographs and documents that, if stretched end-to-end, would reach from the UT Tower to Round Rock—the Briscoe is more than just a depository. Carleton sees it as a resource for those who inform and inspire society, and for society itself. “The Briscoe Center is not a library, and it’s not archives, and it’s not a museum,” he says. It’s a place where America comes to do some soul-searching. To that end, the Briscoe recently conducted the aptly named Campaign to Make History, with the goal of raising nearly $4 million to renovate the center’s first floor in Sid Richardson Hall. They’ve raised nearly $3 million so far, and the university will chip in the remainder.

“It’s well past its prime,” Carleton says of the long, narrow building adjacent to the LBJ Presidential Library. The aim is to create a more accessible space and make the Briscoe Center more than just a storage facility for the bits and bobs of history. Scholars and students have long relished trudging through the archives for clues, but there’s plenty more that’s worth displaying and interpreting for the public.

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The Briscoe’s collections often make for impressive exhibits, from Willie Nelson’s boots to the belongings of Texas soldiers shipped off to fight in World War I. The best tidbits are explained, the same way the little plaque next to Guernica explains why it is one of the 20th century’s most important paintings.

That’s the benefit of a place that’s more than an archive, Carleton attests. “That’s our larger mission.”

What may draw the most visibility to that mission, and to the newly renovated public meeting space and research gallery, is the Davis statue. Permanently displaying the hulking bronzework is enough of a challenge physically and logistically, but putting it in its social and political context—its place in history and the contemporary world—is, in a word, monumental. Luckily, the center houses the papers of Pompeo Coppini, the Italian immigrant who sculpted Davis and other prominent memorials around the state, including the Alamo Cenotaph. Also tucked away at the center is the collection of George Washington Littlefield, the Confederate veteran and UT regent who bankrolled the construction of the South Mall, including the Davis statue.

Carleton calls the statue an important piece of UT history, and a work of art in its own right, one that would benefit from something more than a simple explanatory plaque. It is a task he believes is specially suited to the expertise and resources of the center.

“It puts it in a historical context, and it wasn’t in a historical context where it was,” he says of the move. “That’s what it’s all about.”

Photos from top:

Illustration by Lorenzo Petratoni.

Protesters gather on the South Mall to ask for the university to divest all financial holdings in South Africa, whose government, at the time of this photograph, enforced the apartheid system of legal racial segregation. Photographed by Ken Ryall for the Daily Texan, circa March 1984. Courtesy of Texas Student Publications.

A pistol that belonged to Sam Houston, whose last name is carved on the handle. Houston was commander and chief of the Army of the Republic of Texas and was elected for two split terms as president of the Republic of Texas. Circa 1823-36. Courtesy of Texas Memorial Museum Collection, The Dolph Briscoe Center for American History.

 

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