The Top 10 Museums (and Related Areas of Cultural Interest) in Austin

Words by Blair Waller

After reading a few LIVIN Austin’s articles, you might get the impression that we’re biased toward the city in which we reside. And you’d probably be correct – we are maybe, kinda, sorta a little tiny bit biased. We like to think it’s not hard to be. We live in a great city and we try our best to help you, our readers, make the most of your experience while you’re here, however long that may be. That, and we’d like to have a little fun along the way as we eat hamburgers, drink margaritas, attend shows and dive head first into the outdoors. It’s all in a day’s work.

One truth we absolutely practice, above all else, is to tell it like it is. We gather our facts and present them as they are. It’s that simple.

Having said that, we’re not afraid to admit when we’re not in the top tier of a given area. That is the case this week as we discuss the Top 10 Museums (and Related Areas of Cultural Interest). It’s true that Austin hails in comparison to the likes of New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Seattle, San Diego or Charleston when it comes to museums, both in quantity and quality. While Austin might be one of the more cultural diverse cities in America, it doesn’t seem to prove it in the form of official architectural structures and the physical contents within. It simply isn’t our strong suit for whatever reason.

After swallowing that humble pill, we will say that we are not a dearth on the subject. Furthermore, we might even say that it’s not that we have a severe lack of museums but that they’re just overshadowed by other areas of interest, namely live music, the outdoors, BBQ and festivals. Ask a long time local how many museums they’ve visited and chances are, they’ll hold up less fingers than when throwing a peace sign. It appears museums might not be our “thing.” Or that we just have too many other “things.”

While that last paragraph wasn’t as motivational as Johnny “Mox” Moxon’s halftime speech in Varsity Blues, we hope it might be enough encouragement for you to at least consider visiting the official cultural side of Austin. Besides, as we’re now deeply ensconced in August, it might be a formidable alternative to get out of house and escape the heat. You can’t go to Barton Springs every day.

We present to you, dear Austinites and visitors alike, the Top 10 Museums (and Related Areas of Cultural Interest) in the city.

Bob Bullock Story of Texas Museumbullock

If you’ve ever needed to brush up on the “Story of Texas”, head to the heart of downtown on North Congress, at the corner of MLK and between the UT campus and the Capitol. The museum was created at the hands of Lieutenant Governor Bob Bullock and opened its doors in 2001. Since then, it has become one of the most popular attractions in Central Texas.

The museum, a division of the State Preservation Board, is divided into 3 main floors:

Floor 1 – “Land”

Many have walked these hills, deserts, coasts and level lands over the last 11,000 years. This section displays that history, detailing the lives of all those that hung their hats for a time. The first to settle were the Native Peoples, whose lifestyle is interpreted by way of art (pottery, jewelry), defense (weapons) and spirit (descriptions of customs, beliefs). Then came the clash with European settlers from France and Spain, hell bent on claiming the New World as their own. A prominent feature of this period was the scientific and cultural advances made to ensure a sustained existence in this harsh landscape. The next period chronicles life in the 19th century, the high and low times of the pioneers plus the mapping of the area known as Big Bend. See how the people shaped the land we stand on today.

Floor 2 – “Identity”

Picking up where the ground floor left off, this section details the leaders, soldiers and citizens that defended and maintained order in Texas. Learn about the battles, wars, treaties through hand written letters, diaries and other artifacts of those that wrote the books. Then gain an understanding of how the state sustained the Great Depression as they promoted their way of life, “the west”, to eventual visitors. Texas was a mystery at this stage and this section pulls the curtains on the enigma.

Floor 3 – “Opportunity”

Have you ever wondered about the genesis of the “Reel Hollywood Cowboys”, Japanese rice farmers of the Gulf Coast, the discovery of oil at Spindletop and the growth of the industry thereafter, flight technology of WWII, and NASA console from the Manned Flight Center? This final section tells the fascinating story of modern day Texas.

After you’ve soaked in the history of Texas, it might be time to slip into the IMAX theater to relax and view some of the finest documentaries on the market. All in all, the Bob Bullock museum will leave you with a heightened sense of identity in this state that came to be known as Texas.

LBJ Library and Museumlbj

We all know the name but would you say you know the man? LBJ was no doubt Texas’ most notable politician and that fact merely scratches the surface. He was a person of influence in all aspects of life in Texas, as detailed in the permanent exhibits:

The Legacy Gallery – View the impact LBJ had on our everyday lives including the Voting Rights and Civil Rights acts. These are fruits of his vision of a Great Society.

November 22, 1963 – One of the more important dates in American history, the day more commonly referred to as the assassination of JFK, but also the inauguration of LBJ. This tells the story of that day in Dallas.

Social Justice Gallery – Features telephone calls, artifacts and pictures that documented the President’s influence in the arts, beautification, education and poverty.

The Presidential Limousine – Weighing 5,100 pounds, this vehicle shows how LBJ got from A to B. Believe it or not, the thing had a TV but lacked defensive measures such as armory, bullet-proof glass or any sort of bomb proofing. A sight to see, for sure.

Oval Office – The most prominent room in America, “only” at 7/8th the size, this recreation is a view into the routine life of the President.

The White House Years – The gifts, some lavish while some humble, that LBJ and Lady Bird received while in office.

The Store at LBJ – Pick yourself up a piece of history on your way out!

Either before or after your visit to the museum, stop by the library and flip through particular areas of interests. The experience will certainly have your mind turning pages with vigor.

Texas Music Museumtx music museum 2

Situated less than a block east of I-35, this venue focuses on the faces and sounds that made Austin the “Live Music Capital of the World.” The museum’s mission is to share the history of music as it relates to the town of Austin, through its diverse traditions of Texas music. The tale begins as far back as the Native Americans and continues to traditional “cowboy songs” before covering the German sing societies and Mexican American bands. The story continues to cover early gospel, jazz, blues and country and the genius behind the tunes. The museum is the product of 25 years of research and documentation of volunteers dedicated to preserving the rich heritage of life and music in the area.

This growing, “living” exhibit is a work in progress. Their vision includes the construction of a 10,000 square foot structure that includes classrooms, a gift shop and an array of exhibit. Keep your ear to the hum of this organization.

Austin Nature and Science Center

This organization is on a mission to preserve the natural environment of the city and its surroundings. Austin is known to be one of the more forward-thinking cities when in comes to “green” culture and the ANSC is the lifeblood of this movement. Located on the edge of Zilker Park, the center sports Wildlife Exhibits, a Dino Pit, a Naturalist Workshop and Trade Counter and a variety of education centers, schools and programs. If you’re interested in joining the effort to preserve the beauty of Austin, this is your spot.

Austin Museum of Artaustin museum of art

If you’re more of an art lover than an outdoors person, head to one of the two (or both!) of Contemporary Austin’s locations. Both venues – one on Congress and the other on West 35th – are renowned for their multi-disciplinary exhibitions, programs and special events. The exhibitions are in constant rotation so be sure to check periodically for areas of particular interest. Same goes for the events – we have our eye on Le Dolce Vita Food & Wine Festival this October 24th.  There is a myriad of ways to get involved. You may join the Contemporary Alliance, Corporate Membership, Collectors, Corporate Underwriting or simply just donate. Art is important – get involved.

Elisabet Ney Museumelisabet

Elisabet Ney was Austin’s most culturally significant artist. Her path to Austin was not exactly of the “born and raised” type, however. Born in Munster, Germany, Ney studied sculpture and other techniques throughout Europe. In 1871, she moved to Georgia to raise her child before travelling west to Texas. It is in Texas where she famously proclaimed, “Here will I live. And here will I die!” If that isn’t a Texas romance, I’m not sure what is.

You may experience Ney’s fascinating journey through her actual studio, the Formosa. It is on the list of the National Register of Historic Places. The stunning beauty of the architecture is second only to the works within. You will find historically classic pieces composed in late 19th Europe, including portraits of Otto von Bismarck, King Ludwig II of Bavaria and Arthur Schopenhauer to name a few. If you’re looking for inspiration of not only art, but life, swing by East 44th Street

Mexic-Arte Museummexic-art museum

Founded in 1984, this spot has been integral in the efforts to preserve Mexican American art and culture. In fact, it has been tapped as the Official Mexican Fine Art Museum of Texas by the 78th Legislature. Merely step inside the entry way and you’ll quickly find this is an extraordinary experience. This is a venue most enjoyed with little preface. Enter and you will not regret you did.

Texas Natural Science Centertx science center

An extension of the University of Texas, the TNSC is at the forefront of evolutionary research. Its exhibits contain 5.7 million specimens that focus on life, evolution, rocks, minerals and Texas Wildlife. While all the other museums focus on a max of, say, a thousand years, this one spans millions. Exhibits include the Hall of Geology and Paleontology, Hall of Texas Wildlife, Hall of Biodiversity and many others. Chances are, you won’t have the wildest times here, but if you’re interested in how humans came to be, there is no other spot quite like it.

Blanton Museum of Artblanton

Also a branch of the University of Texas, this spot leans on the artistic side of knowledge. The exhibits venture into pop art, realism, abstractionism, surrealism and photorealism. Needless to say, the Blanton will expand your artistic mind. I’d list the artists displayed but chances are you wouldn’t have heard of them (with the exception being Picasso, Pablo). Ignite your imagination.

Umlauf Sculpture Garden & Museumumlauf

Like Elisabet Ney above, Charles Umlauf – born and raised in Michigan – found his home in Austin later in life. Teaching at the University of Texas for 40 years, Umlauf garnered critical acclaim as an abstract sculpture and this spot in south Austin bears the fruits of his genius. A single gander through his work here and you will no doubt be compelled to view in person. His work is so inspirational that many artists lounge within the grounds, drawing their own versions of abstract genius. Additionally, you are more than welcome to touch the pieces, making it the largest “touchable” garden in Texas.

Perhaps not quite as mesmerizing (but almost!) is the garden in which the sculptures reside. Described as a xeriscape garden, Umlauf Garden reflects the season at the time therefore displaying the work in a unique light each visit. For a breath of fresh air and an abstract experience, visit Umlauf.

Now that wasn’t so boring was it? If nothing else, when you feel life getting routine, change the pace a little with some culture. We’ll bet it pays dividends in more areas than you can count on your fingers when flashing a peace sign.