Saturday, September 21, is National Museum Day. Each year the Smithsonian accepts applications from local museums to participate in National Museum Day. Again this year, your Vanishing Texana Museum, along with two other East Texas museums, has been selected to participate. Some of the guidelines, like free admission, are things we do already. Other items, like the uniqueness of our collection, make it a bit more difficult.
The first item donated to our museum, the tooth of a Mastodon, was in 1956. In those days, the library was also home to the museum. Finally, in 1975, the city appointed a board of directors who applied for the articles of incorporation for the Vanishing Texana Museum.
For many years the museum’s inventory continued to be housed in a small area of the library. Additionally, as the board learned of the damaging effects of fluorescent lighting, the collection was kept under lock and key and was only shown upon request. Happily, gifts to the museum kept coming in.
In 1985, a deal was struck with the Union Pacific Railroad to gift their train station at East Wilson and South Main Streets to be used as a museum. The day before the papers were to be signed, a Union Pacific train pulled into Jacksonville and stopped, blocking all cross traffic through the city.
This happened often as there was no bridge on Highway 69 as there is now. Apparently, our chief of police at the time felt the engineer was taking too long to clear the tracks. He pulled up, red light flashing, and wrote the engineer a ticket. This upset the local Union Pacific manager and before the property transfer meeting could happen, he had the building torn down.
A modular office and two 20 foot containers were placed on the site and remain there today.
Finally, around 2011, an effort was made to create more space for the museum and the back half of the old library was converted to house the collection. In 2012, the Vanishing Texana Museum opened to the public, although on a limited basis.
In 2016 a curator was hired, hours were expanded, and local residents were able to proudly show off the history of their town along with having their personal collections put on display for their neighbors to enjoy.
We humans have a long history of preserving artifacts from our past. The ancient Greeks coined the term “mouseion” when they first built a temple to "the Muses," those frolicking goddesses who kept watch over the arts and sciences. The Greeks filled their temples with incredible sculptures and other works of art.
The tradition continues in Roman times when large buildings displayed the spoils of war brought home by their conquering armies.
U.S. museums can trace their beginning to Charles Vincent Peale. Peale was a self-taught artist who, in 1764, joined “The Sons of Freedom” and used his skills to paint protest signs. His participation in the American Revolution grew as did his paintings of the portraits of American heroes. At the end of the war, he added a new room on his home to display the portraits. There were full length portraits of Washington and Jefferson along with smaller portraits of men like Thomas Paine and Lafayette. Peale and his “Cabinet of Curiosities” (that was the name of a room in a home devoted to a collection of items) became our first museum. Peale charged no admission. Part of this was because he hoped to sell commissions to make copies of the paintings, but most of all he wanted to “inspire his fellow citizens to live up to the highest ideals of a republican form of government.” His efforts led to others opening up their homes for visitors to see their collections or perhaps where some piece of history happened. And so started the “George Washington slept here” craze.
At the beginning of the 1800’s museums became famous for exhibiting bizarre collections with P.T. Barnum leading the pack. Around the time Barnum was turning his museums into carnivals, a surprised U.S. Congress was dealing with an unexpected bequest from an Englishman named James Smithson. His will asked for the establishment of a museum-like Institution for the "increase and diffusion of knowledge." And so began the Smithsonian Institution.
I suppose your Vanishing Texana Museum is a blend of both Barnum and Smithson. Certainly we try to display and expand the knowledge of our local community to all who visit, but our collection of fossilized dinosaur poop, on loan from local collectors, remains one of the most popular attractions.
This year our museum is on track to welcome over 2500 visitors. We sincerely hope you and your family will be included in those numbers. We also hope you will dig into your closets and climb up into the rafters of your garages to find items you can loan the museum for the enjoyment of others.
Your Vanishing Texana Museum is open every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday from 11-4. Admission and parking at our 300 South Bolton location is always free. We look forward to seeing you soon.