Museum of South Texas History includes interactive exhibit with 1910 jail re-opening

By Maria Ruiz

Last weekend, the Museum of South Texas History reopened the 1910 Jail exhibit to the public with a new integrative display that allows museum-goers to interact with the exhibits.

After closing down in 2017 and 2018 for extensive repair and renovation, the 1910 Jail was dormant and closed off to museum visitors. The building renovation and installation of the new exhibits took two years. The Museum of South Texas History planned to re-open the jail after its completion in 2019. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the revelation was pushed back a year in 2020.

“The permanent exhibit is the exhibit of the 1910 jail,” said Francisco Guajardo, the chief executive officer of the MOST Museum.

When entering the few rooms located on the first floor, the motif of civil education is prominent.

“The original 1910 building sits as the start of the exhibition. The 1910 Jail is Hidalgo County’s oldest building on record according to MOST Museum. Progress Times photo by Maria Ruiz.”

Information panels can be moved like pages on a book, the info primarily in Spanish, then English. This design was done purposefully, according to Guajardo.

Drawers framed with historical documents that visitors can pull and open, a photo panel of jury members with red and green LED buttons, and a voting slot with poker chips as ballots are part of a hands-on learning experience.

Guajardo mentioned that creating an interactive exhibit was discussed with the designer, Pony Allen Studios, from Austin, Texas, as the building underwent renovation.

“We realized one of the relative weaknesses we have in our galleries, as beautiful as they are, is that they weren’t built with interactivity as part of the experience,” said Guajardo. “We learned from how people responded to what else they wanted to see in our exhibits.”

The jail still has the natural brick interior, the original entrance being a portion of the exhibit dedicated to the architectural design.

“Upstairs [is] a second exhibit…that we will likely have up there for a little over a year or two years,” said Guajardo. “It has a name [and] it has a theme: Faces de La Frontera.”

Walking up the original staircase, visitors will come across the continuation of the jail exhibit and a separate gallery that houses Faces de La Frontera.

The jail exhibit divides among the corner cell and the deathwatch cell, the narrative introducing Abram Ortiz, the only prisoner who died by hanging in the 1910 Hidalgo County Jail.

The small corner cell, with the authentic door still in place, curates photos and documents. Eerie sound effects of rattling chains and man’s voice wailing: ‘no lo hice’ or, ‘ I didn’t do it’ can be heard through overhead speakers to immerse visitors in a time-period experience.

The deathwatch cell, complete with its original concrete floor, is the last cell on the second level. It contains a large portrait of jurors from 1910 alongside their signatures and allows visitors to enter the gallows with a safety rail installed where the hatch door is.

“An interactive panel is set on display in the exhibition’s first floor, encouraging visitors to guess who could and couldn’t be on the Hidalgo County jury in the 1900s. LED buttons light up red or green to show the answer. Progress Times photo by Maria Ruiz.”

The final and largest room of the exhibition in the building is the Faces de La Frontera gallery. Various photographs and portraits are displayed with questions to prompt visitors how people would have lived in the early 1900s. The gallery acts as an ode to unidentified people and locations throughout the Rio Grande Valley history.

“We don’t know who these people are,” said Pam De Hendricks, the communications officer to the Museum of South Texas.

Local historical faces, such as Emilia Schunior and Nathaniel Jackson, are shown, the identified names and portraits being at the center of the gallery floor.

The 1910 jail reopened to the public this past weekend. Due to COVID-19 guidelines, the museum is currently only allowing 15 guests at a time into the building under a strict time limit to ensure tours run smoothly.

“To make sure that the capacity isn’t more than what we can handle, we have the time tickets, [and] that’s super crucial,” said De Hendricks. “We have safety precautions in place, that includes making sure we have the appropriate materials. Because these are state-of-the-art exhibits, we are using a solution that is not as harsh,” said De Hendricks, mentioning that staff will be cleaning high-contact areas in the exhibit and ensure social distancing.

For more information on the latest exhibit, or if interested in purchasing time tickets, go to mosthistory.org.

1 Comment

  1. Rebecca Allen on February 20, 2021 at 4:57 pm

    This looks fascinating and I look forward to visiting sometime.

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