With the exception of the sprawling Bob Bullock Museum and the Blanton, most museums in Austin are either small- or mid-sized. But what they lack in size, they make up for in sheer diversity. A few of the museums focus on Latino and African-American artists while others showcase avant-garde and up-and-coming artists. Here are the top nine museums to consider for your trip to Austin.
The three-story Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum tells the story of Texas from prehistoric times up until the present. Using interactive displays, audio recordings, dioramas and short films, the museum explains how three major industries—ranching, cotton and oil—played key roles in the state’s evolution. Other unique and fascinating exhibits cover Texas’s role in NASA and the space program, the lives of Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and George W. Bush, and the discovery and recovery of the La Belle shipwreck off the Texas coast. The La Belle shipwreck exhibit tends to captivate visitors of all ages. The artifacts found in relatively shallow water in the Gulf of Mexico tell the story of the doomed vessel that set sail from France in 1684. The excavation process began in 1995, and it essentially involved building a temporary dam around the shipwreck so that the items could be dug up from the muddy bottom.
For a more immersive experience, you can also enjoy an IMAX movie at the museum. Both historical films and major motion pictures are featured at the theater. The smaller Bullock Cinema presents “multi-sensory” films accompanied by special effects such as lightning and rain. If your family is interested in more recent history, the third floor covers the oil business, the cattle industry, Texas music, the Civil Rights Era and NASA.
Every exhibit at the Ransom is basically the tip of a massive iceberg. The museum’s holdings are so extensive they can only show a tiny percentage of them at a time. For a fascinating overview of the museum’s collections, spend some time at the etched windows exhibit on the first floor. Two of the museum’s highest-profile treasures are the Gutenberg Bible and the first photograph. Other highlights of the permanent collection include manuscripts and ephemera of authors such as Arthur Miller and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Periodic exhibits feature dresses and sets from old movies like Gone with the Wind and Alice in Wonderland. Guided tours are available at noon daily.
The official presidential library of Lyndon Baines Johnson, the museum offers a balanced view of this colorful Texan. Through exhibits, short films and audio recordings, the museum tells the story of the struggle to pass the Civil Rights Act as well as Johnson’s failed efforts to end the Vietnam War. The Social Justice Gallery covers Johnson’s lesser-known efforts to combat poverty as well as important legislation supporting Medicare, public broadcasting and consumer protection. For maximum entertainment, make sure you set aside time to listen to the tapes of his phone calls. They reveal Johnson’s emotional, witty and often profane conversations with staffers and world leaders. In one famous tape, Johnson discusses the exact way he would like his trousers to fit in relation to his “bunghole.”
The castle-like home is full of the sculptures of Elisabet Ney, who moved to Austin in 1892. She made sculptures of Sam Houston and Stephen F. Austin, in addition to luminaries from her German homeland. The collection includes a number of busts and life-sized statues. Other exhibits explain Ney’s process of building the sculptures. The building functioned as both a home and a studio (originally known as Formosa). The museum is small, but it provides a fascinating glimpse into the life of an aristocratic German woman living and working alongside some of our most famous early Texans.
As one of the most prominent art museums in the Austin metropolitan area, the Jack S. Blanton Museum of Art has a massive collection featuring more than 17,000 works, including modern and contemporary American and Latin American art, as well as 15th century to contemporary prints and drawings. Located on the southeastern corner of the University of Texas campus, adjacent to the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum and within walking distance of the Texas State Capitol, the Blanton building embodies the clean lines of modern art with its granite and limestone facade, white walls and crisp interior angles. Plan a multi-day visit, if possible. With 124,000 square feet of space, the museum can’t be adequately explored in one day. Along with the established collections and touring exhibits, the museum also organizes lectures, gallery talks, concerts, workshops and the B Scene, a monthly singles event.
The Contemporary Austin is made up of two venues located several miles from each other. You can pay admission at one location and get access to both on the same day. The downtown location, the Jones Center, is a sprawling, airy space with rotating exhibitions. The Jones Center features new works by some of the most innovative artists working today, in every medium imaginable. The other site, Laguna Gloria, is primarily an outdoor exhibition space. The lush fauna throughout the Laguna Gloria grounds serves as a beautiful backdrop for large sculptures and other outdoor art.
The O. Henry Museum houses artifacts and exhibits exploring the life of writer William Sydney Porter. The building served as his home at one time and still contains some of the original furniture. Porter adopted the pen name of O. Henry as a way of starting over after serving a five-year prison term for embezzlement. His most famous short stories are Gifts of the Magi and The Cop and the Anthem.
The Mexican American Cultural Center pays tribute to the contributions of Mexican Americans and Native Americans to U.S. culture. Two galleries offer rotating exhibits featuring the work of contemporary Latino artists.
In addition to exploring the work of scientist and artist George Washington Carver, the 36,000-square-foot museum delves into a variety of other topics, including African-American families, the work of African-American artists, and inventions and scientific advances made by other African-American innovators. Carver first recommended planting peanuts as a way of improving soil quality. He went on to develop peanut butter and several other uses for the nutritious legume. He was also one of the founding professors at the renowned Tuskegee University.