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Lone Star Symbolism: The Punishment Museums

Texas as a state is saturated with symbolism; at every turn you are greeted by an image, object or phrase which has become synonymous with Texas. While this was expected at the larger tourist sites associated with history, I was surprised to see it happening in every corner of Texas, including the punishment-related tourist sites. These sites of penal history incorporated countless Texas state flags, Texas maps, the state’s colours, and the famous Lone Star. This was interesting because, as Yoresh (1988) observes, flags provide a sense of identification; they tell the audience what (and who) the site’s story is about. By incorporating flags as symbols, the stories become even more place-oriented. All of the stories told about punishment within these sites emerged from a collection of symbols which were themselves already Texas-centric.

Kosonen (1999) suggests that maps can function in much the same way as flags, locating the story with a place and by extension, a group of place-positioned people. Moreover, when viewing maps of America, Texas is easily identifiable as it is visually distinctive. Its dimensions (similar height and width) make the shape perfect for ‘logoization’ and consequently the map image is ‘probably the most popular symbol of the Texan identity’ (Francaviglia 1995). Davison and Klinghardt (2007, p. 181) suggest that in the museum context the employment of symbols such as flags or maps confirm that the sites will be interpreted as representations of ‘a particular identity’: notions of ‘shared tradition and shared culture’ underpin the tourist experience. Similarly, Kaplan (1994, pp. 36-8) contends that museums play an important role in the publicly defined image of ‘ourselves’, and that by employing commonly recognised symbols the museum become a representation of a cultural self-identity. In other words, the incorporation of commonly identified Texan symbols into the punishment-related tourist sites will have served to position the stories told within the sites as part of a narrative which is more broadly about Texas and Texans. The sites and their stories become one part of the Texan self-identity or Texanicity. Moreover, using these symbols within sites that tell punishment stories will likely affect the tourist experience in three ways.

Firstly, Avraham and Daugherty (2012) suggest that by incorporating symbols of the Texas state narrative these sites will appear authentic to the visitor. The tourist will see the site as telling an official or real Texan story. Macdonald (1997) suggests that more attention should be paid to the ‘authorial intentions’ and ‘authenticating devices’ at work within museums and other heritage sites, to those features which construct certain museums as ‘the guardians of the real’. Similar to the use of symbols, the location of the sites can also be understood as an ‘authenticating feature’ and as Stone (2006) contends, ‘locational authenticity’ is probably the most crucial feature of a tourist site. The Texas Prison Museum and Cemetery are in Huntsville, a city which is home to the Walls Unit, and the jail cell tours in Eastland and Beaumont are conducted within or near their relative police stations. Moreover, the occupation of the tour guides and site staff further authenticate the experience as legitimate (Brown 2009). All guides were either Sheriff, Deputy Sheriff or a police officer and the Texas Prison Museum staffs are mostly retired prison officers with the museum’s director, Jim Willet, an ex-warden of the Walls Unit. These communicative gestures construct a ‘staged authenticity’, allowing the tourist to enter what is perceived to be a ‘backstage world’ (Walby and Piche 2015, p. 2).

Secondly, the pervasive use of Texas state symbols suggests the sites can be understood as constructing what Anderson (1991) has called ‘an imagined community’, a symbolic nation of sorts representing itself through ‘identifiable symbols which are loaded with significance’. Indeed, at the beginning of all of the tours undertaken in Beaumont, visitors were asked where they were from. This question and the responses given—in conjunction with the vast array of Texan symbols—mean that the Texan audience will likely see these stories as ‘their’ stories. The punishment sites and tours can thus be understood as revealing an inclusive or exclusive element of Texanicity. Texans are encouraged to view themselves as part of the punishment story (as symbolic insiders) and non-Texans are reminded that this is a Texas-centric site. The ‘tough Texas’ punishment stories become entwined with the uniqueness of the Texan self-identity as it is understood on its own terms. This is particularly significant because, as we shall see later in Chap. 12, the punishment sites are not the only places and spaces in which Texas presents itself as somehow unique or separate; this is quite possibly the most stable and enduring aspect of the Lone Star identity.

Thirdly, whether the tourist is a Texan or not, they will locate the sites’ punishment stories within a pre-existing understanding of what Texanicity means to them. As Sherry (1987, p. 454) suggests, the symbols represent a ‘way of knowing’ which in turn will structure the tourist experience. In the case of this research, the symbols represent what Avraham and Daugherty (2012) call the ‘Texas state narrative’ which, rather than a linear story, is a set of ‘ideas and values embedded within the chosen symbols’. In short, by incorporating symbols associated with Texas and Texans within and around the punishment sites, the audience is encouraged to position the punishment stories within their own personal understanding of what Texanicity represents for them.

However, we should not forget that this personal understanding of Texanicity will be influenced by the act of tourism itself. Palmer (1999) suggests that the stories seen and heard within sites which incorporate symbols of identity will either challenge or confirm the image of that identity as held by the visitor before the experience begins. As demonstrated in our discussion about Lone Star punishment sites (Chap. 8), when touring these museums the visitor is encouraged to understand Texas as a place of harsh punishment; Texanicity thus takes on punishment dimensions. In other words, the Texan self-identity will potentially be redefined with reference to punishment during the act of spectatorship and, depending on the gravity awarded by the visitor to the tourist experience, their perception of Texanicity may change forever.

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