Ice House

Why Doesn't Houston Have Its Own History Museum?

The fourth-largest city in the country doesn't have a museum dedicated to its own past. Why?

By Katharine Shilcutt December 29, 2017 Published in the January 2018 issue of Houstonia Magazine

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Houston's destroy-rebuild ethos was alive and well in the 1940s.

Story Sloane III is a man committed to preserving Houston’s history. This makes him an outlier in a demolition-happy city such as ours, a city which—unlike most others around the world—has no museum devoted to archiving its accomplishments and progress over the years, nor its screw-ups and foibles. But this hasn’t stopped Sloane from pushing for a Houston history museum for much of his adult life. Inside his eponymous West Houston gallery one afternoon, Sloane pulls out just a few of the letters he’s written over the decades. They’re addressed to everyone from Houston Texans owner Bob McNair to the Houston Chronicle editorial board, each asking how the nation’s fourth-largest city has never summoned the resources to create its own version of, say, Seattle’s Museum of History & Industry, the Cincinnati Museum Center, or the Detroit Historical Museum.

“I’ve been likened to Don Quixote riding on his little mule, tilting at these windmills,” Sloane chuckles. “But why, in a city [with our resources], do we not have one individual who has the vision to see a museum of Houston history come to fruition?”

Sloane is well-known for his massive archive of historic Houston images, acquired over the years from his own father—a commercial photographer in Houston—and salvaged from other collections destined for the dustbin. It’s one of the reasons why, in 2009, former mayor Bill White selected Sloane to be part of a panel of local experts that convened with the goal of figuring out the best way to connect Houstonians with the city's history.

“People from the Heritage Society, the Preservation Alliance, every historical group and every museum group got together to figure out what Houston needed to promote its past and history,” recalls Sloane, “and the sum total was that Houston needs a brick-and-mortar museum for history and culture.” What would go into such a museum, where it would be built, who would finance it, and what purpose it would serve—would this be for locals or visitors? For championing the city, offering a critical perspective, or both?—were all questions the panel ultimately found unanswerable.

But perhaps that’s because attempting to create one, single museum of history is folly in an ever-shifting city such as ours. Or as Monica Perales, associate professor and director of the Center for Public History at UH, puts it: “There isn’t one Houston, so there isn’t necessarily one Houston history.” Look at the number of museums packed into our Museum District, she emphasizes—or those across the city, from the Houston Fire Museum to the National Museum of Funeral History—which all lay out their own, more specific and segmented, roles in the city’s history.

“There are so many different stories and threads to pull together, that, in some ways, the fact that there are all these different community groups and different interests that are trying to preserve a piece of that history, in some ways makes more sense in a city like Houston, as opposed to having one single narrative, because what would that narrative be?” Perales asks. “How could you contain the vast, diverse history and all of these generations of people?”

The way she explains history to her incoming freshmen at UH is simple: “History is the stories that people tell to give themselves an identity,” she says. “It tells us about who we were in the past, but also who we are today and who we want to be. It’s a living thing—this ongoing conversation about who we are and who we want to be is not of the past; it’s now.”

Does Houston—ever positioned as the city of the future, never looking back, only forward, young compared even to other cities across the nation—even know who it is yet? Who it wants to be? Does our city yet know what it wants future Houstonians to think of the improbable city founded among swampy marshes and embellished lies, on the backs of unpaid and mistreated labor, among once-institutionalized discrimination whose long-gone laws have nevertheless left physical remnants across our landscape?

Providing an attempt at introspection, Perales says, is just one reason museums matter. “They offer some insight into the tough stuff of history, which I think is important to do. It’s very difficult to talk about these questions—it’s just hard; it doesn’t matter if you’re in Houston or somewhere else.”

Also tough: the fact that Houstonians have been trained not to care about their own history over years of thoughtless demolitions by developers eager to create a clean slate for their next mid-rise or mixed-use development. And this isn’t a new thing, as Sloane emphasizes. He points to a poster-sized photo of a beautiful Deco-era building being torn down in the 1940s, less than 20 years after it was erected, to make room for a department store. The sign out front reads: “Building a better Texas! Building a better Houston! Building a better Foley Bros.” As is typical in a city with our priorities, the word “Houston” is in much smaller font than “Foley Bros.”

For a fourth-generation Houstonian like Sloane, the desire for a city history museum is personal. And he thinks that, done right, it could help unite all our disparate groups, by telling their stories under the same roof. “It’s always been my belief that the soul of a community rests within the history of the community,” says Sloane. “Those two are hand-in-hand, so if a community doesn’t have a strong historical base, then you have a community with no soul, a fragmented society of people doing their own things and no unification. There’s all of these museums for all these special-interest groups, but there’s not one that can showcase what everybody has contributed to our community and why we should be proud to live here.”

Maybe one day.

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