Review: Old Red Museum of Dallas County History & Culture

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Does Dallas, TX have enough history to fill a museum? Think about it for just a moment. An American president lost his life here; two of America’s most notorious outlaws met here; and one of the longest-running prime time dramas in American TV history was filmed here. Are you still not sure?

Then visit the Old Red Museum, and discover the answer for yourself. Not only will you discover the answer is yes–as if you didn’t already know–you may well spend several hours learning more about Dallas County than you would have ever imagined.

Housed in a resplendent, late 19th-century building that served as the Dallas County Court House until 1966 and constructed from Pecos Red Sandstone and Arkansas Blue Granite, the Old Red Museum serves as a repository for artifacts related to Dallas County as well as a center for their interpretation. The building’s Richardson Romanesque architectural style stands in contrast to the other buildings in Dallas’s West End, especially so from the Commercial Romanesque Revival Style–the same style as the nearby Texas School Book Depository–that is typical of the warehouse-type buildings that are found throughout this section of Dallas.

The museum is divided into four sections that are each based on a specific time frame or era in Dallas history. The Early Years takes Dallas history back to a time that precedes written records to 1873. The Trading Center describes Dallas County growth from 1874 to 1917. Dallas’ growth as a major American city from 1918 to 1945 is outlined in Big D, and World Crossroads examines Dallas and its history since 1946.

In an additional section called the Crystal Ball Charity Children’s Education Center, youth from pre-kindergarten and up can learn through hands-on exhibits and other displays about such topics as their city, bicycle math, and pioneer life. But it is more than a presentation of facts, it is a tool that helps younger people learn how to analyze and learn from what they see. One informative placard asks, “[h]ow do we know?” It is encouraging young people to think about what can be learned from an object, and what its importance to history is. I’m sure it’s for some young people their first exercise in critical thought.

Consider all the exhibits in the museum together, and it’s nearly all here. The whole story and significance of Dallas County that is. Doak Walker’s Heisman Trophy that he received in 1948, Dallas police detective L. D. Montgomery’s hand cuffs that Lee Harvey Oswald wore the moment he was murdered, an 1851 deed signed by Dallas founder John Neely Bryan, an actual robe and hood worn by a Dallas KKK member, and the iconic Pegasus neon sign that ensconced the top of a local Mobile gas station for nearly fifty years are some of the important historical artifacts on display at the museum.

Viewed as a whole, the museum is a textbook on Dallas County history, and it is a book worth reading. I have visited history museums where the artifacts and their presentation belie and overplay their historical significance. It’s as if the curator’s just had to say something to keep our interest. And I have seen others where the vast collection is mostly stored and not out for public view. Neither seems to be the case at the Old Red Museum.

There’s balance here as you get an overall picture of the area’s history that is neither watered down, nor overplayed, and the curators are not stingy with the artifacts. The exhibit on sports in Dallas presented with all of its glory and success does not overshadow the exhibit on Dallas’s struggles and challenges throughout the earliest days of the civil rights movement up through and including the 1950s and 1960s. In other words, you will leave with an understanding of the whole story regardless of how uplifting, appalling, or revealing that chapter in Dallas County history is.

There are several fine museums in Dallas’ West End that are well worth visiting. The Old Red is one of them. Plan on spending at least two hours here. You will, as I did, want to see and experience it all. The nearby Sixth Floor Museum At Dealy Plaza, and the Dallas Holocaust Museum/Center for Education & Tolerance are two others worth seeing too. If you find yourself in the West End for the day, make all three a priority.

So have I answered the question of whether the history of Dallas can fill a museum? I think so, especially if you consider that much of the area’s history is too large even for the Old Red. What isn’t here can be found partly in the two other West End museums that I mentioned above. There is always more to discover and learn about history, even local history, but the Old Red Museum can and should be your starting place to learn more about the iconic American city called Dallas, Texas.

About Bloice Davison

Bloice C. Davison, III blogs, travels occasionally, and takes pictures. He has experience in the telecommunications, banking, retailing and outside sales businesses. He is a former fly-fishing guide and fly-fishing instructor for the Orvis Company. He served as an Aircraft Maintenance Specialist in the United States Air Force. A 1988 graduate of Virginia Tech, he also has a BS in statistics from the Metropolitan State College of Denver.

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