Home Law Prisons and Punishment in Texas: Culture, History and Museological Representation
It is hard to capture in words just how big Texas feels when travelling around. Whole parts of the state seem to have been forgotten. The road stretches ahead and behind for miles without any sign of life. There are no people, no houses, no road signs, just more Texas. People live hundreds of miles apart with little access to the conveniences of modern living. Yet what surprises me is the diversity within and between places; the contrast of rural and urban Texas is quite astounding. From the wide open roads of the dusty Texas plains, I was heading for the shiny skyscrapers of downtown Houston.
Research Diary: I thought Houston would be similar to London in terms of vibe and when I arrived, it was indeed bustling; sandwich shops have queues that reach out the door, there’s standing room only on the tram and the Macy’s sale has the department store packed full of people hunting for bargains. But at night downtown Houston is actually really quiet. In the evening you can walk down Main Street and not see anyone—the bars shut early, the car parks are half empty and the neon signs blaze their messages to an absent audience. Unlike other big cities, Houston sleeps at night.
The site of interest to me in Houston was the San Jacinto Monument which is located around twenty miles from downtown and receives in excess of one million visitors each year. The monument commemorates the decisive battle in the Texas Revolution against Mexico (1835-6). It was in this battle, known as the Battle of San Jacinto (21 April 1836) that Texas won its independence—at least in theory—from Mexico. The battle was particularly significant because Texas went on to declare itself a Republic and on 2 March 1936, fifty-eight delegates signed the Declaration of Texan Independence; the Republic of Texas was born.
The San Jacinto monument is a tall needle-like structure which reaches 173 metres into the sky making it double the height of the Statue of Liberty (Fig. 3.5). The base of the stone obelisk can be reached by climbing stairs on all four sides. As you reach the top of the large stone steps, inscriptions on each side of the base become visible. Together these inscriptions describe the chronology of the Battle at San Jacinto. The museum, a movie theatre, some offices, a second separate exhibit hall and the gift shop are all housed within the base of the obelisk, which gives some indication of how large the moment is. As a space the museum itself is somewhat less opulent than one might expect, given the monument’s impressive exterior. While the theatre is incredibly ornate (long velvet curtains, deep red velvet seating, decorative brass fixtures) the museum— with its white walls and brown marble floor—is relatively plain, resembling a shopping mall or doctors surgery.
Fig. 3.5 San Jacinto Monument (Source: Mike LaChance, Flickr (https://www. flickr.com/photos/mjl816/19651936763) (licensed CC BY))
The museum also adopts an odd use of space. The ceilings are high so the room has the potential to feel spacious, yet the artefacts and exhibits are housed in glass cabinets, each of which stands around eight feet tall. These cabinets have few gaps between them so they act as walls, creating the feeling of corridors. The museum’s displays are also a little confusing. Rather than focusing solely on the Battle of San Jacinto, the museum hosts all manner of eclectic objects relating to the Texan past and present. There are many displays about Texan independence and those who fought for it, but visitors can also see an exhibit about the Texan invention of barbed wire, a display about the hurricane that destroyed parts of Galveston in 1900 and a collection of photographs which depict the construction of the monument.
There is also a gift shop as you exit the museum which sells a collection of items usually found in these types of large tourist sites. Such items include postcards, key chains, baseball caps, shirts, magnets, bumper- stickers, pens and pencils—many of which have the San Jacinto monument upon them. Toy rifles, Texan history books, ‘Lone Star Sheriff pins and Texas Ranger badges are also on sale. After touring the San Jacinto Monument and making a few purchases in the gift shop it was back to downtown Houston and from there on to Beaumont.
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