In downtown Dallas, the Old Red Museum and the Sixth Floor Museum are only one block apart from each other. The Old Red Museum is in a beautiful red brick building, like a fairytale castle complete with turrets, that dates back to 1890. It was built as the county courthouse, the fifth manifestation on the site – the first courthouse had been a log cabin dating to the 1840s when Dallas was still a newly-formed city. The Sixth Floor Museum is in the old Texas School Book Depository, on the corner of Elm and Houston and next to Dealey Plaza; it was from a window on the sixth floor of this building that Lee Harvey Oswald shot US President, John F. Kennedy in 1963 (I’m putting conspiracy theories to one side) and the museum explores the events leading up to and following the assassination, as well as a very detailed retelling of the shooting itself.
The Old Red Museum holds a rich collection focussed on social history. It tells the story of Dallas from the mid-nineteenth century onwards, and must be a fantastic resource for local schools as it covers all aspects of life and State – law, politics, manufacturing, commerce, sport, culture, and education. The ground floor is dominated by the gorgeous neon ‘large red horse’ (Pegasus), the Magnolia Oil logo that was once on top of the Magnolia building (now a hotel). There is also a temporary display on WWII – I didn’t know that Dallas had played such a big role in the war effort: huge factories were constructed to make aircraft and machinery; one million temporary homes were built for factory workers who had been shipped into the area; 511 internment camps were built across the state to hold 425,000 poor souls from Germany, Italy and Russia who had the misfortune of being in the wrong country at the wrong time. The display also includes everyday objects, such as ration books and domestic appliances; and the accompanying 1940s music sets the scene.
Returning to the lobby, there is an amazing wrought-iron staircase leading up to the main displays on the first floor with four themed galleries arranged chronologically around a large landing. There is also a dedicated interactive gallery for children. The displays are a good mix of objects, photographs, films, and additional interpretation material such as maps, timelines and oral histories. Some stories dominate, for example:
- the 1936 Texas Centennial Exposition celebrated 100 years since the ‘liberation’ of Texas from Mexico (who knew!?) and there were many examples of tourist items and memorabilia such as coins, ceramics, and glassware;
- Deep Ellum (an area at the far end of Elm Street) produced the Dallas Blues and saw influential musicians such as Blind Lemon Jefferson and Leadbelly perform there;
- cotton and oil have both had a massive impact on the wealth and character of the city;
- and finally race relations – the grim story of segregation and the fight to end it through the civil rights movement. I was pleased to see the positive contributions of women and African-Americans well represented in the displays – the mix of voices and perspectives creates a complex and dense narrative.
There were a handful of objects that really stood out for me – the gun owned by Clyde Barrow (of Bonnie and Clyde fame), and the handcuffs worn by Lee Harvey Oswald when he was shot by Jack Ruby, made a big impression. My first reaction was ‘wow – cool!’ My second reaction was more uneasy as I realised how strange it was that these objects, tied to such violent and brutal acts, had acquired such a glossy sheen. The distance of time and the glamour of Hollywood have turned them into something like celebrity relics. Seeing objects that have witnessed history is one of my absolutely favourite aspects of visiting museums – but in this case it felt inappropriate to enjoy the thrill. As I was pondering these mixed feelings, I turned a corner and encountered a deeply sinister Ku Klux Klan hood and top. It was compelling and disturbing in equal measure as I’d never seen one before. The KKK shows human nature at its worst – coming face-to-face with this horrible artifact was chilling.
I had gone into the Old Red Museum knowing next to nothing about Dallas; I left the museum with new eyes and a whole other perspective. Walking around, I can now picture how the city looked in the 1930s, before the oil money replaced so many of the brick and marble Deco wonders with enormous glass skyscrapers. The city has both huge pride in its cultural heritage and deep rifts between races; the locals are so friendly and welcoming, living up to the reputation for Southern hospitality, and yet there is an extraordinary undercurrent of inequality and violence built into the history of the place. I bang on all the time about the importance of object-based learning, but this still took me by surprise – the experience of the Old Red Museum really hammered home to me just how powerful objects can be.
The Sixth Floor Museum and surrounding area were incredibly busy when I visited – the ‘grassy knoll’ was covered in tourists, many taking selfies. There is an X on the tarmac that marks the exact location of the shooting – some tourists were standing in the middle of the road to get a photo up to the Book Depository building from this spot, which felt like an accident waiting to happen. Tickets for the museum are sold in half-hour windows and while I was waiting to enter at 10.30am, others were being told it was sold out until mid-afternoon. It didn’t get any less busy inside either – like any blockbuster exhibition in London, we were a large shuffling mob, queuing to get near the text panels and objects. I am not a patient person at the best of times and this scenario usually winds me up pretty quickly; fortunately, the audioguide was excellent so I could happily listen and stand at the back, glimpsing photos over shoulders and between heads, and generally getting the gist.
I thought the exhibition was well done – there are not many original objects so the majority of the display is a sequence of large text panels, well illustrated with photos, newspaper articles and videos. The story plays out in chronological order: Kennedy coming to power in 1960; controversies surrounding his presidency (his support for the Civil Rights Act was very unpopular in Texas); the sequence of events, sometimes minute-by-minute, on 22 November 1963; the press and media whirlwind that followed (including footage of Oswald being shot by Jack Ruby); extensive exploration of the conspiracy theories, eye witness testimonies and subsequent committees set up to establish what happened once and for all; and finally, Kennedy’s legacy. For some reason, Oswald’s wedding ring was on display – the brief label gave basic factual information and included the extraneous detail that, ‘the ring was made in the Soviet Union’. Not exactly light on subtext.
Again, I have really mixed emotions about the Sixth Floor Museum: on the one hand, I learnt a lot about this moment in history and the grainy amateur film footage of the shooting will never look the same again; on the other hand, it felt a bit ghoulish with shades of ambulance-chasing. It made me think about the assassination, although I probably spent as much time thinking about how weird we are as a species to want to flock to this place. Believe it or not, I really enjoyed my visit to both museums and would recommend them to others. It wasn’t the usual museum enjoyment that comes from looking at beautiful things, but the enjoyment of being uncertain and having to think about things more deeply.