Right now, the marquee star at the Witte is Backyard Monsters: The World of Insects, a stimulating, visually exuberant depiction of the vast world of entomology. Kids will seriously dig the giant, detailed models of monarch butterflies and tarantulas, the interactive robo-bugs (robo-bugs, you say? Yesss!), and will bug out for insect merch at the gift shop. And for good reason: The world of insects is at once exotic and familiar, creepy and beautiful, a terrific lens through which you, your grandma, and your five-year-old nephew can witness nature’s massive (and endangered) diversity, right down to the little six-legged critters.
Meanwhile, upstairs in the Piper Memorial Wing, you’ll find an exhibition dedicated to a far slipperier subject. 1910: A Revolution Across Borders achieves exactly the reverse of the Monsters spectacle; rather than magnifying little beasties into behemoths, 1910 takes on a gargantuan and complicated history, a war of massive diversity and far-reaching significance, and renders the giant topic approachable.
“I had to get real stupid to get `the exhibition` down to something manageable,” jokes Bruce Shackelford, a researcher, writer, and consultant to numerous museums on Western history and the Witte’s Brown Foundation curator. “Just here in our permanent collection, weeding out … which pieces or photographs told the story in as clear a way as we could … we had to keep in mind that most people, even `in San Antonio`, have to be educated. People can picture Pancho Villa, they have that picture of Zapata from Mi Tierra in their heads, but to set a context, and try to simplify `their role` in all that chaos, that’s the point.”
1910: A Revolution Across Borders is built largely, and impressively, on the Witte’s permanent collection, buttressed by newly-designed elements. At the show’s entrance, a world-historical, wall-sized timeline places the Mexican Revolutionary Period in context with other early-20th century conflicts, such as the Russian Bolshevik Revolution, the Spanish-American War in Cuba and other Latin-American wars of independence, and lists the U.S. presidential administrations of the era. Despite the big-picture introduction to the revolution, though, the vast majority of the show’s documents, photographs, books, paintings, weaponry, and garments came from right here.
“We had `access to` Pancho Villa’s last saddle, but we had to borrow a photograph of Woodrow Wilson from the Library of Congress,” chuckles Amy Fulkerson, the museum’s collections manager. This illustrates the ironies of San Antonio’s unique historical outlook; traditionally, we’re both regionally- and internationally-focused, and more than a little removed from centralized U.S. power. Pancho Villa, we know. Woodrow Wilson, not so much. Or as Shackelford points out, “What’s gone on in Mexico has always been more important to South and West Texas than whatever’s gone on in the Northeast or Washington.”
And Revolution Across Borders does a terrific job of bringing it all back home to San Antonio, illustrating how the war shaped our city and even more intriguingly, perhaps, how our city shaped the war. It’s an interdependence backed up through documents and images, as well as unusually well-written wall text. A video installation by multimedia artist George Cisneros — brother of Henry, and whose own mother escaped revolutionary chaos as a small child — continues the theme of a war wherein the local is the international is the personal, through images connoting family history and tradition. On the wall opposite, a slide show of headlines from Revolution-era issues of the San Antonio Light fascinates both with language and through design. The last gallery you walk through shows off the aforementioned Villa saddle, plus a passel of hats and guns and gloves with the power of haunted relics. These visuals are set against an effective soundtrack of vintage corridos, popular ballads through which revolutionary history and ideals were promulgated, especially important among illiterate populations who learned and recounted through oral tradition. Some of these songs are still performed by musicians in the here and now.
William Faulkner once opined that “The past is never dead. It isn’t even past.” 1910: Revolution Across Borders bears out this axiom with a sure-footed, if introductory handle on the period’s bazillion narratives, as well as the political, economic, and cultural forces still at play. You’ll come out of there with a pretty clear idea of the principal characters, a newfound apprehension of the war’s tragedy and absurdity, and its essential role in San Antonio culture. And, perhaps, you’ll possess a deeper understanding of how brutal chaos in Mexico fastens to our American dream. •
1910: Revolution Across Borders
Through February 27
The Witte Museum
Exhibit included with museum admission