In a cavernous hall one level below the permanent petroleum and windmill exhibits at Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum in Canyon, Michael Grauer stands next to an enormous wooden bean thresher. The wheeled, wagon-sized thresher, partially draped in a quilt that doesn’t quite conceal an array of chains and pulleys, was used to farm pinto beans during the Depression. It arrived at PPHM in 1990 from a donor in Tulia and has been in storage ever since.
Like the vast majority of the museum’s artifacts, this unwieldy piece of Panhandle history rests in the massive, climate-controlled bowels of the building on the southwest corner of West Texas A&M University’s campus in Canyon. Apart from a brief exhibit in the 1990s, it has never been seen by the thousands of tourists who visit Panhandle-Plains every year. In fact, those tourists – who come from as close as Amarillo and as far away as Germany and Japan – only observe a small percentage of the museum’s holdings.
The rest remain hidden. Some are waiting to be used someday in an exhibit. Others are waiting to be discovered by the museum’s hard-working curators who continue to find objects, collected decades ago, that they didn’t even know belonged to the largest history museum in Texas. A few artifacts may never see the light of day. They’ll never meet the public gaze. They’ll rest on a dark shelf or within a locked safe for as long as the museum exists, simply because preserving the past is central to the museum’s mission.
Michael Grauer inspects the bean thresher. He’s the associate director for curatorial affairs and curator of art and Western heritage at Panhandle-Plains, and having joined the museum in 1987, is its longest-serving staff member.
“The museum’s primary purpose is preservation and education,” he says. Often, the museum accepts heirloom objects like the thresher not for display purposes, but just because it’s worth preserving. After all, says Grauer, “You can’t teach about the thing unless you have the thing. To have the thing, you have to preserve it.”
Panhandle-Plains, to put it bluntly, is currently preserving thousands and thousands of things: arrowheads, bones, books, paintings, documents, tools, vehicles, farming and ranching equipment, and articles of clothing.
Exactly how many artifacts are held in its walls?
The museum’s curators don’t exactly know.
Grauer hazards an answer. “Roughly two million in the museum overall,” he says. Though vague, that’s the curators’ best guess and the number listed on the PPHM website. But the museum’s assistant registrar, Maggie Malone – whose job it is to catalogue and care for the collection – wonders if even that count is too low. Determining an accurate number is almost impossible for two reasons: First, the museum has relied upon several cataloguing systems since the Panhandle-Plains Historical Society began collecting relics of the region’s history in 1921. Some of those artifacts were collected door-to-door as the first members of the society scrambled to keep history from disappearing during that first decade. Record-keeping wasn’t a priority, and the paperwork that did take place was much less detailed than today’s practices. So while the items have remained at Panhandle-Plains over the years, a percentage of them don’t yet exist in the museum’s computer database.
Secondly, the museum is constantly adding to the collection. “It’s an ongoing process,” Malone says. Over the past year, since September of 2015, she estimates the museum has taken in more than 1,300 artifacts. Some are tiny projectile points – flint arrowheads – used by the early American Indians who lived on the High Plains. Others may be large collections more accurately measured in cubic feet.
Due to a lack of funding and a very lean staff, experts like Malone and Grauer are constantly being pulled in multiple directions. As registrar, Malone is responsible for cataloguing the museum’s historical collection and maintaining all the documents related to accessions (when an item becomes part of the collection) and deaccessions (when an item permanently leaves the museum’s collection). But in addition to maintaining that database, Malone also coordinates loans of PPHM artifacts to other museums, makes shipping arrangements, monitors environmental conditions at the museum, helps plan and perform research on exhibits, and tracks the location of the museum’s objects.
“If we can’t find it, it’s of no use to anyone,” she says. That immense list of responsibilities explains why she and the museum’s curators are always teetering on the edge of being overwhelmed by the sheer volume of work. As of this summer, Malone has been finishing up the cataloguing of new accessions – from 2010.
Most of those are objects the public will never see. From Panhandle-Plains to the Smithsonian, most museums only display around one percent of their collection to the public at any one time. “It’s not just unique to us,” Grauer says. “It’s common to all museums.”
He makes the understatement of the century. “We have a lot of items.”
The Stacks While a tour group explores the paleontology and geology exhibits above, Grauer continues walking through the museum’s unseen hallways and storage facilities. He passes an in-house carpentry shop, where Exhibits and Construction Manager Kenny Schneider oversees a team of assistants and volunteers who help create the framework to display the public exhibits. He points to the exhibit prep shop, where labels and photographs are prepared to accompany the artifacts on display. “One of the things people lose sight of in museums is that human beings not only take care of the objects, but we write all the panels as well,” Grauer says. “These are not cut-and-pasted. They’re labored over and well-researched. They have to get on the wall. That’s how we teach.”
He passes a locked firearm vault, where Adjunct Firearms Curator Paul McFadden is helping identify World War I ordinance for a future exhibit. The vault represents the largest public collection of firearms and weaponry in the state and, according to Grauer, “probably [one of] the most far-reaching firearms and weapons libraries west of the Mississippi.” Museum visitors may be familiar with the plains rifle owned by Charles Goodnight on display to the public, or the Winchester Model 1873 that belonged to iconic Comanche chief Quanah Parker. But for every sword, pistol or rifle behind glass in the museum’s public area, there’s another preserved in the vault. Dozens of metal drawers hold handguns. Rifles are arranged upright in rows. Grauer estimates the room contains more than 1,300 weapons.
Nearby, he opens a scissor-gate elevator door, “an artifact in itself,” he jokes. The elevator leads to the vast storage area museum staff refers to as “The Stacks.” In 1973, West Texas State University opened its new Cornette Library on the other side of the campus. The old library had been located on land next to the museum, and the college donated it to PPHM for storage. A building that once held four floors of books now contains four floors of the Panhandle’s past.
Grauer calls it “the inner sanctum.”
Outside the elevator, Becky Livingston, the museum’s curator of history, flicks on an overhead light. It illuminates a single row of shelves. Dozens more stretch into the darkness behind her. Each floor boasts multiple tiers, rows and sections of storage. A single floor of The Stacks would put the combined inventory of all the antiques stores on Sixth Street to shame. Those are often jumbled, chaotic arrangements of vintage finds and furniture. This is a meticulously arranged and categorized bonanza of history.
“I am in awe of the depths of our collection,” Livingston says as Malone flips on another overhead light. For years, museum visitors have enjoyed a constant rotation of evening gowns in the Textiles exhibit. These come from literal rows of clothing kept in The Stacks: a full section of white wedding dresses, a green expanse of military uniforms, and even a few WT cheerleading sweaters in classic maroon. There are closets full of shoes. Rows and rows of hats. Quilts and blankets rolled up and stored around tubes to protect their fragile, aging fibers from creases.
Every floor, every section, every switch of the light reveals a fresh grouping of treasures.
For every saddle representing the area’s cowboy history in the public exhibits, dozens more are kept in the basement of The Stacks, where at least 150 saddles represent almost all the legendary saddle-makers of the American West.
For every brand appearing in the Blacksmith’s Shop in the Museum’s public Pioneer Town exhibit, another dozen hang on a wall in The Stacks, a nod to the area’s ranching history. There are countless bridles, bits, reins, stirrups, and even coils of barbed wire.
Another floor up, the collection takes a more residential direction, containing myriad toys, household goods, old cameras, radios, televisions, musical instruments, glassware, woodworking tools, and car parts. One shelf holds World War II-era helmets, including a few from Nazi Germany – likely souvenirs from Panhandle men who fought in Europe. Below these is a folded-up brown parachute, also from the War. No space is wasted.
Livingston puts on white cotton gloves in order to pick up a piece, even if just to move it a few inches on the shelf. “We never touch anything by hand,” she says. The gloves are a constant presence, “unless it’s something that would be more at risk from slipping with a glove.” In that case, she wears grippier, powder-free nitrile safety gloves.
“An important part of our mission is preservation as well as exhibiting,” Livingston says. “It’s a big deal to accept things from the public. It’s a sacred trust we make when they trust us with their precious artifacts and history. We take it very seriously to take care of them properly – to ensure that future generations can see that wedding dress or military uniform or set of china.”
Sometimes that means controlling the exposure of an artifact, which is why a number of popular items visitors may have seen on exhibit 10 years ago are in storage today. “Not everything we have on exhibition [represents] our most special artifacts,” Grauer says. “For example, Quanah Parker’s headdress is a major artifact for us. But because it was on exhibition for almost 10 years, it needed to rest.” Why would an inanimate object need to rest? Because things like climate, light, temperature and humidity can increase the speed of its deterioration, Grauer explains. Some items need to be stored so they can be protected. Members of the public can gain access to these items by appointment – to study Quanah Parker’s 35-foot diameter church teepee cover, for example – but otherwise these pieces remain in storage.
“To store things so they can be preserved – so they can be exhibited in the future – requires financial resources and space resources,” says Livingston. Though The Stacks remain in a windowless darkness behind thick plaster walls, protecting fragile fabrics or leathers from the Panhandle’s dry air is a task that always needs improvement. And the museum always, always needs more space.
More space, and more staff. When Grauer came to Panhandle-Plains in 1987, half of the museum’s budget came from the state of Texas. Today, state funding has been reduced to 18 percent of the budget. “That’s a big hit,” he says. “We have about a quarter of the number of curators we ought to have.”
Anthropology and Natural History No one knows that better than Dr. Veronica Arias, the curator of archeology at Panhandle-Plains. “I am the curator of archaeology,” says Arias, an experienced field researcher with a doctorate in anthropology. “But that’s a misnomer because I actually curate five very large and very different collections – archaeology, paleontology, geology, natural history, and ethnology [the collection related to Native Americans and other early people groups].”
Her well-lit lab and storage area has a completely different feel from the dark Stacks. A powerful HVAC system, rather than decades-old plaster, manages deteriorating agents like humidity or heat. Valuable fossils, historic pots, and other artifacts are kept in locked cabinets or are shelved upon heavy, high-density mobile racks that move with the turn of a wheel.
If the Stacks area represents donated artifacts, Arias’ collections tell the other side of the story. In the 1930s, the museum supervised two Works Progress Administration excavations of pueblo-like villages built by the Antelope Creek people, who lived in the Panhandle from around the 12th to the 15th centuries. These large-scale projects led to several “major findings of major time periods,” according to Arias, and the museum curates those valuable objects. “We care for them, we display them, and we loan them out to other institutions,” she says.
“In addition to these excavations, we also serve as a repository for state and federal ‘held in trust’ collections,” she continues. “If something is found either on state or federal lands in this region, those objects come here for permanent curation.” That means any fossil or ethnological artifact discovered in Palo Duro Canyon State Park, for example, will likely spend the rest of its life at PPHM.
The shelves and cabinets in these collections tell the stories of millions of years of habitation of this area. Neolithic ground stones and ancestral pueblo pots represent the nomadic people who once traveled to and from the Alibates Flint Quarries. Mammoth teeth, articulated mastodon feet, and Permian-era animal tracks remain from non-human residents. Panhandle-Plains’ collection of Comanche artifacts from the mid-1800s is one of the most significant in the world, and the museum regularly lends out pieces of its ethnology collection to other museums, from the Autry Museum of the American West in Los Angeles to the Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin.
The distinctiveness of this collection has made PPHM a valuable research center. Recent visitors have included a Wichita State professor performing projectile point typologies (or, in lay terms, “arrowhead identification”) and a German researcher who came to the U.S. for three reasons: to visit The Field Museum in Chicago, to attend paleontology meetings in Fort Worth, and to study the paleontology collection at Panhandle-Plains.
“We are seen by museums in the state and the country as a kind of warehouse of things they want to borrow – or wish they had,” Grauer says. “Every week we get contacted [by other museums]. I give a sketch idea of what we own and they’re usually slack-jawed at the end of the conversation.”
The Antelope Creek artifacts are especially attention-getting in the museum world. “That is a level of complexity this area had in prehistory that is quite unique,” Arias says. “[There are] so many possibilities for future research there. It’s really an honor to be able to take care of them. We open our collections as much as possible to outside researchers. We’re [also] trying to promote more and more research from WT and conduct our own research with departments across the university.”
The objects for which Arias is responsible require annual department reports and inventories to comply with state and federal legislation. The dozens of taxidermic migratory birds in the natural history collection require a special U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service permit. Owning stuffed bald eagles and golden eagles requires a separate permit. Bird species native to Texas require yet another permit.
Arias points to a locked, closed door on one side of her repository. She won’t open it or allow it to be photographed. “Another obligation we have is to the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act,” she says. Enacted in 1990, that federal law requires agencies that receive federal funding to return certain sacred cultural items – including human remains –to lineal descendants of the tribes to which they belong. “In this room, there are 200-plus human remains, [stored] in boxes per individual,” she explains. They belonged to the earliest inhabitants of the Panhandle. “We have to try to culturally affiliate as many of those human skeletons as possible, with the ultimate goal of repatriating them with the tribe they belong to.” The museum began the process of identifying these remains in the 1990s and the painstaking work continues to this day. “It’s a huge obligation,” Arias says.
The combination of research, testing, cataloguing, and caring for culturally valuable objects like these – across multiple disciplines and thousands of years of history – mean Arias has to multitask as much as anyone else in the museum. “I pull my hair out every day because there’s not enough time and not enough resources to do everything you want to do,” she says. “But you never get bored with this job. You always have something to do, but you’re always learning about new things that were not part of your original training. There’s such a diversity of tasks. It’s a wonderful feeling to find something in our collections or to find out what something’s worth.”
Art History Another locked storage vault – one of three – holds the museum’s substantial collection of Southwestern and Texas art, containing an estimated 8,000 objects. Grauer describes it as “the most comprehensive art collection between Dallas/Fort Worth and Denver … and certainly the most comprehensive public collection of historic Texas art in the U.S.” Panhandle-Plains is known worldwide for permanent galleries dedicated to H.D. Bugbee – the legendary former art curator at PPHM – as well as the celebrated Western artist Frank Reaugh. A special exhibit dedicated to the works of Jose Arpa, an impressionistic Spanish painter and Texas artist, closes after Labor Day.
These galleries are serene spaces that focus individual attention on each piece of art. That distraction-free ethos doesn’t apply to the museum’s vaults. These climate-controlled spaces maintain a temperature between 68 and 72 degrees Fahrenheit and a 45 to 55 percent relative humidity – but to the untrained eye, those limitations seem to be the only stability in this particularly cluttered space. Pointing out one project after another, Grauer’s commentary helps define the ordered chaos. “These are all things waiting to be put away or processed, or [which] have come back from an exhibition,” Grauer says. “Many of them are new acquisitions.”
Around him, hundreds of framed oil paintings and pastels hang on metal cages designed to store, rather than display, the art collection. On tables in the middle of the room, pieces exist in a transitional state. One paper drawing arrived at the museum in a tight roll. It lies on a table, with both ends weighted to flatten it. Bin boxes and packing crates from the Arpa exhibit rest against a wall. One painting is being prepared to ship to The Grace Museum in Abilene for an exhibit on Spanish art and culture. Other pieces are headed out to or have just returned from conservation or restoration – a specialty the museum lacks.
“We don’t have the labs anymore,” says Grauer. “We used to have a full-blown [conservation] lab down in the basement, but that’s all shut down.” Instead, the museum sends paintings in need of repair to a conservator in Wisconsin. Paper artworks are shipped to a conservator in Santa Fe, and sculptures and other art objects delivered to an expert in Chicago.
The three vaults are barely enough for the collection. “I’m about out of room,” says Grauer, who offers a wry smile. “He who dies with the most art wins.”
Grauer’s passion has brought PPHM acclaim in the visual arts community. Recently, he discovered a long-lost Georgia O’Keeffe watercolor while looking through a private collection. He had been gathering materials for an upcoming show celebrating a century since the American painter lived in Canyon. O’Keeffe had wanted the small, abstract painting destroyed, though it had been listed for decades among her works. Titled “Red and Green II”, its discovery sent ripples through the art world and earned a feature article in the Smithsonian Magazine. That watercolor is currently on display outside Grauer’s office, serving as a replacement for “Red Landscape”, the single O’Keeffe original in the museum’s collection. “Red Landscape” is currently on display in Santa Fe, having been borrowed by that city’s Georia O’Keeffe Museum.
Beyond O’Keeffe, Panhandle-Plains’ collection of Western and Southwestern art can literally be seen worldwide. Through the U.S. State Department, says Grauer, “we have things on exhibit in half a dozen U.S. embassies around the world right now,” including embassies in Uzbekistan and Equatorial Guinea. Moreover, “The Approaching Herd”, a PPHM-owned Frank Reaugh oil painting of longhorn cattle, hung above the desk of President George W. Bush in his personal office in the White House – a private space near the Oval Office – at the request of First Lady Laura Bush. “I think it was there for seven of the eight years” of Bush’s presidency, says Grauer. It’s back at the museum now.
Despite that attention, Grauer says the institution’s art collection remains one of its least-known treasures. In fact, when he first arrived at PPHM, Western art only appeared in public as “filler” between other traveling exhibits. Upon seeing the value of some of its pieces, Grauer insisted art become a permanent part of the museum’s displays. “I would have people drive that long 15 miles [from Amarillo] and get here and look at these and say, ‘I had no idea. How long have you had this?’” he remembers. “I would say, ‘Since 1933.’”
The Archives Though few members of the public will ever visit The Stacks, archaeology lab, or art vaults, one section of the museum’s impressive collection is always open to the public. The PPHM Research Center and Archives, overseen by archivist Warren Stricker, is available for public use for a daily fee of $5. Most museum visitors walk past the glass doors of its third-floor entrance without a thought. But for historians, writers, researchers, documentarians, novelists, genealogists, and desperate WT students, it’s one of the museum’s best-kept secrets.
“The archives collection is very focused,” says Stricker. “It’s intentionally related to the development of the Panhandle and all aspects of life in the Panhandle.” This library-like space contains dizzying amounts of paper records, letters, maps, books, photographs, audio recordings, and more. With 4,000 linear feet of archival material, it boasts the world’s largest windmill and barbed wire trade literature collections. It houses nearly 250,000 photographs. It even contains around 3,000 recordings and transcripts of oral histories related to the area.
Stricker says those oral histories are one-of-a-kind. “When the Panhandle-Plains Historical Society was formed [in 1921], one of the first things they did was hire someone to travel around the region to talk to old-timers,” he says. These elderly subjects were some of the region’s earliest settlers. Lacking audio equipment, the historians took detailed notes of interviews. Their printed historical summaries are in the collection. In the 1970s, WT history professors began assigning similar interviews, complete with audio and video recordings. “Those are still in their original formats,” Stricker says, including reel-to-reel tapes, cassettes, and now digital recordings. “Some are brief, but some [transcripts] are 20 to 30 pages long,” Stricker says.
Other essentials in the Archives are the detailed records kept by early Panhandle ranches – mundane lists of activities, inventories and sales that provide a snapshot of life a century ago. Shelves of boxes contain these materials, including the financial ledgers of Charles Goodnight’s JA Ranch, legal and personal documents belonging to Amarillo developer Charles Wolflin, and the extensive autograph collection of Amarillo businessman Morris Loewenstern. According to Stricker, Loewenstern’s files contain the signatures of prominent politicians, actors and athletes – along with “kings of England and most of the presidents of the United States until the latter two-thirds of the 20th century.”
Panhandle-Plains also dedicates multiple storage shelves to the non-current records of local county and city governments, bound into elaborate, oversized books. Donated letters and papers belonging to lesser-known residents, minor ranches, and small businesses complete the Archives.
The diverse catalog brought members of Ken Burns’ research team to PPHM when the famed filmmaker was researching his 2012 documentary on the Dust Bowl. Many of the photos used in that film – along with the accompanying book – came from the museum’s archives. “We’ve had people come from overseas to do research,” says Stricker, who regularly fields calls from historians and scholars in the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, and beyond.
“Any of these items are valuable in a lot of different ways,” Stricker says of the Archives. “If they are lost, then that little bit of history is lost. People are very generous with sharing their family materials and we are grateful for the trust they put in us. We do our best to make it available for a variety of uses.”
The Mission That gratitude and sense of responsibility drives curators like Grauer, Livingston and Arias to treat their overwhelming collections with immense respect. It propels Malone and other registrars to track hundreds of thousands of artifacts and objects with elaborate attention to detail. It pushes Stricker to catalogue every page in the reams of correspondence intended for his collection – even though it arrives in multiple boxes at once.
But conservation costs money and takes time. Funding dries up. Budgets get slashed. As a result, the museum’s lean staff often finds themselves tugged in two directions. They can do the behind-the-scenes work of curating, caring for valuable items no one will ever see. Or they can perform the flashier, more public duties of designing exhibits that will bring more visitors and funding to the museum.
Doing both at once is nearly impossible, but it’s funding that allows them to preserve Panhandle history. Though currently between executive directors – former director Guy C. “Cliff” Vanderpool departed in April, and a search committee now seeks his replacement – the dedicated Panhandle-Plains staff remains excited about the future. They’re planning new exhibits, researching objects’ histories, and seem to uncover a new piece of Panhandle history every week in the museum’s unimaginably large collection.
They do it for a reason.
“The greatest tragedy in any community is to turn your back on your past,” says Grauer. He and his coworkers aren’t about to let that happen.
Did you know?
Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum … … is the largest history museum in Texas. … has one of the largest working-cowboy saddle collections in the U.S. … has the largest public collection of firearms and weaponry in Texas. … has the most comprehensive art collection between Dallas and Denver. … owns the oldest existing original ranch buildings in West Texas (1877 T Anchor Ranch Headquarters). … owns two battle sites from the Texas-Indian Wars (the Second Battle of Adobe Walls and the Battle of Buffalo Wallow). … owns 14,000 book titles, 250,000 photographs, and 4,000 linear feet of archived material in its Research Center.
What’s coming up at PPHM?
Museum staff are currently preparing for a busy fall season. On weekends, Michael Grauer leads walking tours of downtown Amarillo, beginning at the Herring Hotel and concluding at the Santa Fe building. Tickets for these tours sell quickly, but are available at panhandleplains.com.
On Sept. 29, PPHM collaborates with Amarillo Museum of Art for a film screening of “Pastel Poet of the Texas Plains”, about artist Frank Reaugh.
On Nov. 5, the museum hosts Lone Star Murder Mysteries, a fundraising mystery dinner. “It will be centered around the story of wrestlers and wranglers and gamblers and the saloon and the Old West,” says Stephanie Price, marketing and communications manager at PPHM.
Georgia O’Keeffe’s birthday is Nov. 19, and on that day the museum hosts a special event for women. “We’ll do makeup and nails inspired by Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings,” Price says.
In the meantime, PPHM continues to bring its education programs to as many as 30,000 school-age children annually, while hosting 50 to 60 large tour groups every year – activities that are central to the museum’s mission. “We are always looking for donors and members,” Price says. “We welcome their membership and we want them at our special events. Their attendance is how they support what we’re doing.”
by Jason Boyett
Jason is a journalist, copywriter, ghostwriter, and the author of more than a dozen books. His most recent is “12 World Religions: The Beliefs, Rituals, and Traditions of Humanity's Most Influential Faiths”, published by Zephyros Press. Learn more at jasonboyett.com.