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Treasures in Concrete: Appraising the archival records of the Institute of Texan Cultures

September 9, 2021
The UTSA Institute of Texan Cultures. San Antonio, Texas. Photo courtesy of the ITC.

From February to August of 2021, I undertook a huge and unique archival appraisal project for UTSA Libraries Special Collections: an institutional review of the records of the Institute of Texan Cultures (ITC), a cultural and historical museum in downtown San Antonio operated by UTSA. For me, an early-career archivist on my fourth temporary position since graduating in 2019, the position was an opportunity to gain experience with appraisal projects of massive scale – and to escape the snow and ice of a Minnesota winter. 

The second draw factor soon proved to be ironic, as Winter Storm Uri hit San Antonio on the day my work was scheduled to begin. A week later, thankful that I had hauled my midwestern winter gear halfway across the country “just in case,” I finally arrived at the concrete walls of the ITC. Though the 1968 building was unaffected by the historic cold snap, the institution it housed had weathered many decades of budget cuts and a year-long COVID-19 shutdown. Inside was a contrast of empty hallways, storage spaces with neatly organized filing cabinets, and abandoned offices overflowing with chaotic paperwork. 

Where to begin? After piecing together all the information I could find on the history and organization of the museum I began moving from room to room, relying on the records themselves to reveal their provenance and importance. Gradually, the forms and functions of the institution revealed themselves through their paper trails, along with the stories of the administrators, curators, educators, researchers, technicians, clerical workers, and others who worked tirelessly to present the people of Texas to the world. 

1. The Administration

“The Institute would primarily be a communicating device, a center for telling the Texas story dramatically, simply, effectively[.]”

Ralph Henderson Shuffler (1st Executive Director of the ITC 1967-1975). Memo to Governor John Connally’s office, 1966. 

The ITC began life as the Texas Pavilion of the 1968 World’s Fair (Hemisfair ‘68). Originally intended to be a temporary exhibit, the Texas State Legislature soon approved the ITC as a permanent museum funded by state appropriations. The ITC reported directly to the University of Texas System from 1969 to 1986, when the Board of Regents transferred control of the museum to UTSA.  

While most administrative records are temporary and are shredded after a period of a few years, records that document the decision-making process of institutional leadership are important to preserve. Occasionally, temporary documents gain archival value over time, such as the ITC’s original payroll forms from 1968. 

2. The Exhibits

The second of the ITC’s three floors is dedicated to exhibits. Permanent displays tell the stories of the many ethnicities and cultures that call Texas home, supplemented by rotating temporary galleries. Most exhibits were fabricated in-house by the ITC’s Production Division, whose detailed files document the evolving public face of the institute. The blueprints, text, images, and research notes in these files are the only remaining traces of the ITC’s past exhibits.

3. Audiovisuals

The ITC produced thousands of audiovisual media in support of exhibits, special events, and educational programs. The most iconic of these was the “Dome Show,” a complex combination of film and slide projections on the landscapes, people, and customs of Texas that ran daily from 1968 to the early 2000s.

Audiovisual media, particularly formats that utilize magnetic video or audio tape, are at a high risk of deterioration. The lifespan of this media will now be increased by storage in a climate-controlled environment, but digitization will be necessary for their long-term preservation. Work has already begun on digitizing the many elements of the Dome Show, which will be digitally synchronized to replicate the multisensory experience of the analog production.

4. The Texas Folklife Festival

A staple event of the ITC from 1972 to 2019 was the Texas Folklife Festival, a multi-day event that showcased traditional food, crafts, and entertainment. Participants ranged from well-established cultural organizations to ad hoc family and community-based groups. For this latter type of participants, the applications and supporting material that they submitted to the Texas Folklife Festival may be the only permanent record of their existence. The records of this ITC department thus form a unique snapshot of the cultural landscape of Texas

5. Research

For over fifty years the ITC employed professional social science and humanities researchers whose work supported all museum functions. Today, detailed subject files and an extensive oral history collection are the enduring legacy of these dedicated knowledge seekers.

As the ITC transitions to new and innovative ways to fulfill its mission of cultural education, the past accomplishments and accumulated knowledge of the museum will be preserved for the future by the archivists of UTSA Special Collections. While much work remains to be done to make the material accessible to the public, I was able to select 300 linear feet of material for preservation – a satisfying outcome for six months of work.

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