Texan cultures on display: Humble leader brings research to life

Lupita Barrera

Lupita Barrera

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(Aug. 13, 2014) --Lupita Barrera smiles as she recalls the day four years ago when UTSA President Ricardo Romo was followed by a class of sixth graders the way a team of ducklings follows mama.

The Beeville, Texas, schoolchildren were at the Institute of Texan Cultures to see Romo's photography exhibit, "Small Town Texas." Barrera and her team created the event just for them. After an introduction listing President Romo's many accomplishments (and lots of questions about his days as a UT Austin track star), the photographer gave the students a guided tour, sharing the stories behind his photos. It was a one-of-a-kind experience for them.

The sixth graders responded to their museum visit by documenting their own small town. The results were stunning.

The students compiled an impressive display of Beeville-related paintings, photographs and travel brochures. Institute of Texan Cultures staff helped the students turn their efforts into an exhibit all its own. Beeville's mayor attended the exhibit's celebration. So did President Romo. The children were beaming from ear to ear.

"Museums connect people," says Barrera, director of education and interpretation (E and I) at the Institute of Texan Cultures. "They help us learn about ourselves and relate to each other. It's important for people to understand that we each make valuable contributions to society and by doing so, we collectively create a better world for ourselves and those around us."

Barrera's Education and Interpretation team taps a vast toolkit to make the most of every visitor's experience. The team has developed thematic tours of the exhibit floor, and they have trained volunteer docents to deliver those engaging tours to museum visitors.

The E and I team develops curriculum and other resource materials to accompany its exhibits. It is currently working to expand the curriculum it offers online. It also delivers several professional development sessions to educators each semester, culminating with a three-day workshop in the summer.

Working with schools to produce student exhibits continues to be an integral part of the E & I team's efforts. Student-produced exhibits about skateboarding, ancestry and fiesta hats have been featured in the museum.

Thematic Family Days and 21 Plus programs also draw visitors to the museum for special events, activities and lectures.

"We follow an age-old dictum: First, we aim to raise awareness of a particular issue," Barrera explains. "Then, we help people understand the issue. Understanding soon gives way to appreciation and appreciation causes people to act in a way that embraces and promotes diversity."

The Institute of Texan Cultures has been serving Texas since it opened its doors in 1968. Today, the museum is a vital part of UTSA, a top-tier university that is well on its way to earning premier research status.

That partnership is bringing even greater value to museum visitors.

"The Institute of Texan Cultures has always been iconic," says Barrera. "It's always been the place with the best available research on Texas and its diverse populations."

In just the last few years, Barrera's team has tapped UTSA researchers in education, mathematics and public policy to find new ways to tell meaningful stories.

Currently, Barrera and co-curator Sarah Gould are working with Rogelio Saenz, dean of the UTSA College of Public Policy, to gather information for Techas, Tejas, Texas, a 2,500-square-foot exhibit slated for May 2015. Saenz, a demography researcher, is helping Barrera and Gould obtain and interpret data to illustrate Tejano history from early to contemporary times. The exhibit will describe the group's complex migration story and its cultural contributions.

Next summer, the E and I team will partner with the Holocaust Memorial Museum of San Antonio to present a three-day workshop on the Holocaust and genocide. The workshop coincides with a UTSA student-created exhibit, part of UTSA Professor Kolleen Guy's class on the subject.

Barrera hopes the lasting memories she creates at the ITC will encourage even its youngest visitors to embrace and preserve Texas' diverse cultural history for future generations. It's a goal that Barrera says is a team effort.

"I could not do what I do without the people around me -- the people in my department and the whole ITC," says Barrera. "Our job is to 'light fires' in people, spark curiosity and get them to want to know more -- to better understand themselves and the world around them. We're here to help people make connections. Perhaps, naïve, we're here to facilitate peoples' discovery of where they fit in the wonders all around us."

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