Humans have been recording their histories for thousands of years in a variety of ways: oral tradition, writing, art, dance, and song to name a few. In the United States, some of the oldest petroglyphs are possibly 14,500 years old and while it is not certain, it is likely these are depictions of shared beliefs or events, that were captured in rock art as a way to record them for the future.
Pueblo Indians more recently produced rock art in the red stone of the Southwest. Like the Nevada depictions, it is easy to infer that these illustrations are likely historic recordings of spiritual or cultural significance.
Today, recording the historic past is done in a variety of ways. People take photographs or produce a scrapbook, families collect oral histories, and museums care for objects and documents that tell stories of groups of people and their histories.
The Republic of the Rio Grande Museum, located in Laredo, tells the history of life in Laredo in the 1840s. Like all museums, it actively preserves and protects the objects, documents, photographs, oral histories, and even the historic building that is in its care. This is a responsibility of a museum, as stewards of historic preservation and education.
The work at the Republic of the Rio Grande Museum is to preserve the past and invite visitors to learn. The museum is housed in one of Laredo’s oldest structures which is located on San Agustin Plaza in downtown Laredo. It is made in a Border Vernacular architectural style, and in the 1830s served as a home to prominent rancher and Laredo mayor, Bartolomé García. In 1840 it became the capitol building for the short-lived Republic of the Rio Grande.
Since the Republic of the Rio Grande Museum is a historic structure, it requires constant upkeep and care, done in a manner that preserves its architectural and historic integrity.
Why preserve an old building?
We can preserve history through the conservation of old buildings as a way to help give a community a sense of place and connection to the past. Old buildings are often an example of a particular type of architecture or represent an important moment in a city’s history. The building that the museum occupies today reflects examples of both: a type of architecture known as Mexican border vernacular architecture and a place that served as the capitol building during the Republic of the Rio Grande.
Preserving history through buildings
Recognizing the importance of old buildings to the public and to the country’s heritage, Congress enacted the National Historic Preservation Act in 1966. This building is recognized on the National Register of Historic Places.
You can read more about that here: https://npgallery.nps.gov/AssetDetail/NRIS/73001983
What do we know about the museum building?
There was a professional architectural investigation done of the building in 1986. It revealed a number of intriguing things:
The walls are made of locally quarried sandstone.
The door lintels (wood over the door frame) are made of mesquite.
Different rooms were constructed in different time periods and the earliest construction date is not certain.
The original floor would have been dirt.
And much more!
Here are some sketches from the study.
How do you research and describe a historic building?
Sometimes the words restoration and preservation are used interchangeably, which is incorrect. There is a difference between preservation and restoration, each with its own purpose and appropriate times for application.
Restoration involves taking an artifact or building back to its appearance during a particular time period in its existence.
Preservation involves looking forward and taking measures to keep the object as it is in its current state.
Inside this building, the operations of a museum occur. This means preserving history by sharing content through exhibits, caring for the objects and documents in the collection, and providing educational programs as outreach. All these things are important to take care of in order to give visitors a glimpse at what life was like in Laredo, in the 1840s.
A visit to the building invites visitors to imagine the activities of a family that lived in it, between 1830 and 1860. It displays things that will be familiar, like furnishings: a bed and a desk. Then, there are things that are obviously missing: running water for a sink,
an indoor bathroom, and electricity.
Some key things that a museum preserves are letters, important signed documents, photographs of people who shaped history, personal belongings, memorabilia, maps, and sometimes oral histories.
(These items are not in this museum’s collection, but are of the type that museums like this one, might preserve.)
Preservation of museum objects is done with a few guidelines in mind. Some include:
Careful HANDLING of
Handle artifacts as little as possible! Our skin has oils, acids, and salts that will damage materials over time. Whenever it is necessary to touch an artifact, museum staff use clean, dry, lotion-free hands or they wear clean cotton or latex gloves.
Reduce exposure to light
The best way to store historical artifacts and documents is in the dark! The damage caused by light is cumulative and irreversible. In fact, displaying an object under ideal museum lighting conditions for just a few weeks can have the same effects as exposing it to bright sunlight for a day or two. UV light–the type the sun emits– is the most harmful type of light, so museums make every effort to exclude or filter UV sources.
Keep the temperature
and humidity stable
Providing a properly controlled and stable environment is critical to the long-term preservation of the museum’s artifacts. While some things need very careful care, most often a constant temperature of 68 to 72 degrees and humidity levels of approximately 45–55 percent, is best.
Listen to an architectural preservationist talk about historic features of the Museum's building.
Preserving Your Family History
How can you protect and preserve the history of your family?
You can act like the curators of your family history and collect items, much like a museum would, to preserve your history. You could create a small exhibit, or simply do good record keeping and artifact preservation,
to ensure the history is retained.