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Bob Bullock's Final Legacy: The History Museum as Theme Park

By Bill Crawford

JUNE 26, 2000:  What if you spent $80 million to build a history museum, and you had nothing to put in it? That is the challenge facing the folks who are planning to open the brand-new Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin on April 21, San Jacinto Day, 2001. While they've done a remarkable job in filling up the 41,000 square feet of exhibit space with everything from IMAX films to pickup trucks, the story behind the biggest history museum project in Lone Star history reveals as much about the history of Texas as do the exhibits themselves.

What does it take to raise $80 million to build a history museum in Texas? Well, in Texas, all it takes is one helluva powerful politician -- in this case, the late Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock. Governor Bullock, as he is still called in political circles, was the last of a dying breed -- a hard-drinking, hard-dealing Texas Democrat.

President Lyndon Baines Johnson, another big-dog Texas Democrat, once said, "I never trust a man unless I have his pecker in my pocket." Well, Gov. Bullock had big pockets and they were stuffed with legislative peckers. By the end of his political career, he was the most powerful politician in the state. Bullock was able to get pretty much anything he wanted. And the Texas State History Museum was something that Bob Bullock wanted real bad.

Why? Well, in addition to being a political genius (or maybe because of it), Bullock was obsessed with his legacy. Like all of us, Bullock wanted to ensure himself a little bit of immortality. Unlike most of us, Bullock had the political power to use the state Legislature to build himself a posthumous empire.

In 1994, Bullock attended a funeral out at the Texas State Cemetery just north of Seventh Street in East Austin. Bullock planned to be buried at the state cemetery, on Republic Hill -- the fashionable section of the cemetery -- just up the slope from the numerous Civil War veterans and their families buried in the Confederate field. But when Bullock took a look around the battered burial ground, he didn't like what he saw.

Over the next three years, Bullock managed to turn a quiet, forgotten graveyard into a crisp, clean, cemetery theme park. A hill was added to the grounds, along with limestone walls, a visitor's center, and a babbling brook. Bullock had the road that ran through the graveyard declared a state highway, and poured state money into the cemetery, justifying the expense in part as a highway beautification project.

The Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum will open April 21, San Jacinto Day, 2001.

photo by John Anderson

Ever the resourceful politician, Bullock even managed to get the U.S. government to pick up 80% of the cost -- some $4.7 million total, for a graveyard of Confederate veterans and Texas state officials in the middle of an economically depressed minority neighborhood in East Austin. It's only fitting that Texas State Highway 165 runs close to the grave of governor James Edward "Pa" Ferguson, who was indicted in 1917 and thrown out of office in part for embezzling highway funds.

Perhaps the oddest thing about the Texas State Cemetery is that Bullock, who died on June 18, 1999, lies in an unassuming grave, marked by a small plaque and flags, right behind an enormous marble monument marking the grave of Barbara Jordan. His gravestone, which was just installed this week, reads "God Bless Texas."


History for the Masses

But Bullock wasn't satisfied with renovating the Texas State Cemetery. He needed something more. While he was recovering from an illness in 1996, a reporter asked him what he hoped to accomplish before he left office. Bullock said he wanted to be sure that Texas had a history museum -- not just any history museum, but the grandest history museum in the nation. He picked the State Preservation Board as the organization that was going to oversee the construction and operation of the museum.

Why? Well, Bullock was co-vice chair of the preservation board, which had been created to oversee the restoration of the Capitol building and grounds. The board had done a good job, and the new museum was going to be part of the Capitol complex. Other boards, commissions, and historical organizations in Texas raised muted voices of protest against creating a new museum organization from scratch. But it didn't really matter. What Governor Bullock wanted, Governor Bullock got.

Bullock was no archivist. He didn't really care about creating an institution that would preserve historical documents or objects. That job was for bureaucrats in Texas "collecting" institutions, such as the Texas State Archives, the Center for Texas History, the Texas Memorial Museum, the Panhandle Plains Museum, the San Jacinto Museum, the LBJ Library, and the George Bush Presidential Library. Bullock wanted to create an educational institution, aimed at presenting the story of Texas history to the people of Texas.

Bob Bullock managed to get the U.S. government to pick up 80% of the cost -- some $4.7 million total -- to spruce up the Texas State Cemetery in East Austin, where he is now buried.

photo by Alan Pogue

"It's apples and oranges when you compare this museum to other museums in the state," explains Don Carleton, head of the Center for American History at the University of Texas and an advisor for the museum. "This is something completely different."

Bullock got the Legislature to allocate $80 million for his new museum, about $45 million for construction and the rest for building exhibits. He and the staff of the State Preservation Board set out to visit museums all over the country, and hired America's leading museum planners, exhibit builders, and theme park impresarios to present the Story of Texas. And just before his death last year, Bullock got the last thing he wanted. The Texas history museum he worked so hard to create was officially named the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum.


The Story of Texas

There is no better place to get a feeling for what the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum will be than the offices of the State Preservation Board. A conference room on the ninth floor of the Sam Houston Building looks out over the 110-foot-tall silver dome that rises over the construction site where the museum is taking shape. The room is filled with architectural drawings, floor plans, marble flooring samples, and other concrete manifestations of Bullock's dream.

Lynn Denton, the director of the museum, and Bonnie Campbell, the executive officer, give me a preview of what the museum will eventually be. Denton and Campbell, who helped manage the restorations of the California and Texas state capitols, are fantastic pitchwomen for the museum project -- articulate, enthusiastic, knowledgeable, and completely convincing.

They tell me about the 35-foot bronze star that will stand outside the museum on the curb, luring more than one million visitors inside each year. They describe the signage throughout the underground parking lot and the rest of the museum, which will look like book plates and book spines telling The Story of Texas. They uncurl an artist's rendering of the huge inlay that will be on the floor of the entrance: historical figures around a campfire, seen from a bird's eye view. The words "Born around the campfires of our past" surround the scene, designed by Amarillo artist Robert T. Ritter. Campbell and Denton describe walking up the granite staircase of the foyer, past the three floors of the museum, and how the image will change as the visitor proceeds higher and higher.

"We ran out of building before we ran out of history," Campbell explains. It's true. Each of the three exhibit floors has a different theme. The first floor, which focuses on building the land, will introduce visitors to the nomadic people of Texas, as well as Spanish colonization and immigration, complete with a tipi theatre and a dog-trot cabin. Floor two, with the theme of "Building the Lone Star Identity," highlights the classic moments of Texas history, including the war for Texas independence and the Civil War. Not only will Travis' letter from the Alamo be on display, but a smoking Alamo theatre will tell the story of the great battle in the words of Juan Seguin, and Confederate Texas battle flags will be prominently displayed.

the Texas State Cemetery in East Austin

photo by John Anderson

The third floor, called "Creating Opportunity," will feature a walk-through ranching experience complete with a pickup truck, an AT6 World War II vintage aircraft built by Texas women, and a one-third scale model of a lunar landing vehicle formerly used as a television prop. Together, the permanent exhibits will deliver an immersive multimedia historical experience, perfectly suited for the fourth- and seventh-graders who are required by law to take Texas history. In addition to the permanent exhibits, the museum has space for temporary exhibits. The first will be titled "It Ain't Braggin' if It's True."

Rick Crawford, the executive director of the museum, is an affable, straightforward former state representative from Amarillo who enjoys nothing more than bragging about the museum. The former real estate developer confesses that he is "a former lot of things." But he is particularly well-suited for his present position as the P.T. Barnum of Texas history, a job that requires showmanship, political savvy, and hard-nosed business sense.

Crawford explains that, unlike most museums, the Texas State History Museum will be self-supporting. In other words, it will have to generate enough revenue to cover its operating expenses. How will it do this? Crawford points out that the business plan for the museum was written by the consultant who recommended against Disney building a theme park in France. (The French Disneyland turned out to be a disaster.) He describes the museum's 8,500-square-foot entrance, which will be available for catered events, receptions for 750 or sit-down dinners for 500. Think of UT football weekends or legislative dinners, and sources for the money become apparent.

He describes the museum store and points out that the stores the State Preservation Board currently manages in the Capitol building and the Old General Land Office building gross about $1.6 million per year. He hopes that the Texas history museum store will net $800,000 a year. It will be designed around a carnival theme -- an idea that evokes unfortunate images of state legislators as hustling carnies.

Of course, Crawford explains, a lot of the money from the museum will be generated by visitors fees. This is a tricky issue, and museum officials are trying to design a sliding scale of fees that will allow everyone to attend performances. Crawford is careful to point out that every Texan 18 years or younger will be able to experience at least part of the museum for free. At first, planners set the age at 12, but a committee of the Legislature squawked, forcing a change of pricing policy. No matter what sort of admission pricing plan is adopted, it will almost certainly have to be amended to suit the political needs of the legislators.

Bullock had the road that runs through the Texas State Cemetery declared a state highway, and justified the expense of renovation in part as a highway beautification project.

Crawford enthusiastically describes the IMAX and the special effects theatre. With a three-screen presentation narrated by an actor playing Sam Houston, the theatre will tell the stories of the Alamo, a cattle drive, and the Galveston hurricane, complete with moving seats and simulated high winds. "Who would've thunk it?" Houston will say toward the end of the presentation, "The first words from the moon were, 'Houston, we have landed.'"

Crawford also describes one of the museum's most impressive features, a 60-foot projected multimedia timeline that will be controlled by visitors on the second floor. On the back side of the timeline will be one of the few statues in the museum, a statue of Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock.


That's Infotainment!

Unlike most museums, the Texas State History Museum is a rather straightforward enterprise. Its mandate is to educate Texans with entertaining exhibits based on different aspects of Texas history. It has a clear goal: It has to earn enough money to cover its operating expenses. If it doesn't, the State Preservation Board is going to have to go to the Legislature for a handout, and the Legislature isn't going to like that.

In other words, we Texans will vote with our dollars on whether or not we approve of the museum. If we don't, we are going to be stuck with an $80 million domed white elephant near the state Capitol. So we'd better like it, just to prove we weren't idiots to build it in the first place.

But history is a tough sell. In 1961, Angus Wynne Jr. opened up Six Flags Over Texas as a Texas history theme park, featuring six different areas which evoked the history and the culture of the six periods in Texas history. At Six Flags, history eventually got lost under roller coasters. The same thing will probably have to happen at the Bob Bullock Texas History Museum, if the place is going to make any money. A museum is supposed to be a place that preserves what is important, but the bottom line is, the Texas History Museum is going to have to preserve what sells.

Take the IMAX theatre, for example. You would expect that when the museum opens next year, the IMAX theatre will play a movie about Texas. Not so! No one knows what the IMAX theatre will play, but it won't be a film about Texas, at least not initially.

Rick Crawford, the museum's executive director

Why not? Well, the film producers have found out that it's much easier to build a Texas history museum than to make a film about Texas history. (Of course, there is the Alamo movie which plays at the San Antonio IMAX, but that's another story; see "As Big as Texas," below.) The IMAX was originally going to run a movie about Texas. So a private, nonprofit organization, the Texas State Historical Museum Foundation, was created to raise $6 million to produce the movie. But problems arose immediately. First, the foundation discovered that they could not raise the money for production without a script. Then they had trouble coming up with a script that donors liked.

When the Chronicle contacted the foundation, they said that they wouldn't be able to comment until they had hired marketing and public relations people. Others said that a script has been written that focuses on the relationship between the land and the people of Texas, and that about half the money has been raised. Meanwhile, a package of information about the movie is being circulated to potential donors.

Texas history is our collective memory. But like any memory, it is quite selective. And at least in the case of the IMAX movie, the selection is being made by Texans with big wads of cash. Is that a bad thing? Not necessarily. And the Texas State History Museum will probably make more money by running Everest, Michael Jordan, and other IMAX hits than boring Texas history films featuring car-sized Davy Crocketts.

The biggest problem with the IMAX movie, and the history museum project in general, isn't that it is a money-making project financed by the state, but that Texas design companies have not been hired to make the film or create any of the exhibits. The exhibit work is all being done by The Planning, Research and Design Group out of Fairfax, Virginia, one of the leading museum design firms in the country. Nor have Texas film producers been hired to make the ultimate movie about Texas history. It will be produced by BRC Imagination Arts, a company out of Los Angeles that specializes in making exhibits for museums and theme parks. BRC did the IMAX movie for NASA in Houston. There are a lot of talented designers, filmmakers, and writers in Texas. It's too bad that none of them had a chance to help create the Texas History Museum.

Another question concerns the force behind the museum, Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock. More than anything else, the Texas History Museum is a monument to the former lieutenant governor. The museum would not exist without Bob Bullock, the museum is named after him, and the museum is going to prominently display his statue. Wouldn't it have been better for the people of Texas if Bob Bullock had done something else with $80 million rather than build a Texas history theme park that carried his name? How about establishing the Bob Bullock Health Care Clinic? Or the Bob Bullock Drug and Alcohol Abuse Center? Or maybe the Bob Bullock Literacy Program?

Well, sorry, but as they say in the Cotton Eyed Joe -- bullshit. All those other things would have been fine, but they damn sure wouldn't have been as much fun as the Texas State History Museum. And fun is what Texas is really all about. A great thing about the state is that we enjoy ourselves, and we aren't afraid to make fun of ourselves. In fact, there's nothing we like better than laughing about our own screw-ups as well our successes. About how we screwed up (and succeeded) at the Alamo. And in the Civil War. Governor Bob Bullock screwed up and succeeded a lot -- that's part of the reason he's still revered by people around the state.

Soon we'll have a big, beautiful, air-conditioned building where we can all go to pay for parking, buy souvenirs, and celebrate Bob Bullock and the cosmic screw-up that is Texas history. It'll be almost as much fun as wandering through the re-created oval office in the Lyndon Baines Johnson Museum and recalling LBJ putting the make on his secretaries, or lobbyist-watching in the halls of the Capitol when the Legislature is in session.

But hold on. There is one old-time Texas Democrat who created an even cooler monument to himself. John Nance "Cactus Jack" Garner was the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives from Uvalde, Texas, and one of the most powerful politicians in American history. Garner served as a loyal vice president to Franklin Delano Roosevelt for two terms, though he liked to tell folks that the job of vice president wasn't "worth a bucket of warm piss." And when he retired to his home in Uvalde, Garner built himself a monument. He poured himself a drink, piled all his papers in his backyard, set them on fire, and watched history go up in smoke. Now that's a Texan!


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