Dolph Briscoe Center for American History

Photo Credit: Ashley Ephraim | Daily Texan Staff

The Dolph Briscoe Center for American History unveiled its newest exhibit, “Struggle for Justice,” on Friday. It’s the third exhibit to be featured after a nearly two-year long renovation of the center’s main hall.

The exhibit documents the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s with about 60 photographs and assorted documents from the Briscoe Center’s photojournalism collection.

Don Carleton, the center’s executive director, said the exhibit is not intended to serve as an exhaustive history of civil rights, instead focusing on showcasing the work of journalists.

“We have made an effort to acquire and preserve entire archives of individual photographers,” Carleton said. “That’s not something that most other institutions do. We’re different that way.”

Ben Wright, assistant director of communications, said the documentation of social injustice helped galvanize support for federal civil rights legislation in the ’60s. In the documentation process, photographers often found themselves in dangerous circumstances, Wright said.

“There’s a sort of debt of gratitude that Americans owe photojournalists for documenting the injustice,” Wright said. “I think they got a very compelling, beautiful, somewhat disturbing history of the civil rights movement.”

Radio-television-film senior Miguel Valarino said he appreciated the candid, sometimes behind-the-scenes portrayals of black leaders during his visit.

“Sometimes people see the civil rights movement as violent,” Valerino said. “But what’s represented here is the opposite. … Here you don’t see the violence; you see who they are and why they thought this was important.”

Wright said an interesting aspect of the exhibit is its placement right next to the Jefferson Davis statue exhibit. The statue was relocated in 2015 after being targeted for protests and vandalizations.

“You have these fairly different pieces of historical evidence displayed at the same time. That makes this exhibit intriguing and timely,” Wright said. “I think it says something about how diverse and varied American history is.”

Despite focusing on events from more than 30 years ago, the message of the exhibit still resonates, Valarino said.

“We haven’t achieved equality today, and when people who have the power see these movements and say the civil rights movement already happened, it’s like ‘Nope, there are still a lot of things to fight over,’” Valarino said. “And we can do that in a civilized way just as they did in the 1960s. But until we conclude that we still have inequality, these sorts of exhibits have to exist, be visible.”

Willie Nelson performs at The Backyard in Bee Cave, Texas in April 2014. 

Photo Credit: Joe Capraro | Daily Texan Staff

Country Music Hall of Famer Willie Nelson donated his collection of more than 600 photographs, letters and other personal items to the University’s Dolph Briscoe Center for American History in May. 

The collection spans over 40 years of Nelson’s career and will be displayed as biannual installations reflecting important themes and chapters of his life, according to Erin Purdy, associate director for publications and curation. Purdy said the items reveal the intimate relationships Nelson developed with musicians, politicians and his fans. The collection includes correspondence with Dolly Parton and Johnny Cash as well as political figures such as former President Bill Clinton and former Gov. Ann Richards. It also includes one military medal — a Purple Heart, given to Nelson by one of his fans.

“The exhibit’s showing not just what he has accomplished, but how much people love him and how much they esteem his work and what he has done to make an impact in their lives,” Purdy said.

A native Texan, Nelson moved to Austin in 1972 and performed at the first Austin City Limits Live show. Purdy said Nelson’s impact on the musical community in Austin made the Briscoe Center, a U.S. and Texas cultural preservation center, a natural resting place for his collection.

According to assistant professor of musicology Charles Carson, Nelson represented the counterculture spirit of Austin in the 1970s that is still seen today.

“Austin in the 1970s attracted people who were marginalized and didn’t feel like they could fit in anywhere else. The two main groups were cowboys and hippies,” Carson said. “Because musicians like Willie were bringing together folk rock and country, both sides of that coin latched onto his music as the voice of that generation.”

Since the announcement of Willie Nelson’s donation, Purdy said the Briscoe Center has received positive responses from the Austin community. She attributed this popularity to Nelson's involvement in the community. 

“He’s an activist on behalf of any number of causes and generous with his time,” Purdy said. “He has touched so many lives, and what has been striking to me is how broad the responses have been from all walks of life.”

Anthropology senior Alan Garcia said he grew up in Austin listening to Nelson after his parents introduced him to his music. He said he appreciates Nelson’s musical creativity and his support for farmers’ rights and social issues.

“Willie’s rebellious, and he takes a stance,” Garcia said. “A lot of people today are afraid of doing that in country.” 

Garcia said he is interested in seeing photographs and letters from Nelson’s collection that illustrate Austin’s music scene in the 1970s.  

“Archives like this can bring you back to the past, a creative scene, that can still be revived,” Garcia said.

The University’s Dolph Briscoe Center for American History will gain an endowment from the Flag Heritage Foundation’s Wednesday auction of a Revolutionary War era American flag, and its directors are also hoping the purchaser will donate the flag to the center to complete its flag collection.

The Forster Flag is currently owned by the Flag Heritage Foundation, which is not affiliated with the University. The flag was originally the centerpiece of the Whitney Smith Flag Research Collection, which was donated to the University without the Forster Flag. According to Lisa Avra, associate director of the Briscoe Center, the Heritage Foundation has decided to auction its flag in order to raise the funds for an endowment to gain a curator for the flag collection.

“As the flag was once on loan to the Whitney Smith Collection, before the collection was donated to the Briscoe Center, we are hoping that the buyer might also donate the flag to the Briscoe Center, where it would once again be the centerpiece of the collection,” Avra said.

Benjamin Wright, a public affairs officer for the Briscoe Center, said obtaining the flag would be an exciting opportunity for the University, as the flag is one of thirty surviving flags from the Revolutionary War era and the only one that has not yet been placed in a museum or institution.

“Everyone at the center is waiting in anticipation to see what happens at the auction,” Wright said. “It’s simply the nature of auctions that anything can happen.”

According to Wright, the Briscoe Center is a likely place for the flag to end up due to its possession of the Whitney Smith Collection, thus making the center an ideal institution to exhibit and study it. Wright called the auction, with proceeds going toward the endowment for curation of the collection, a “baseline scenario,” and said the center is hoping for more.

Maryam Amjadi, Plan II and history freshman, said she appreciates being at UT because it is a large research institution with the ability to access historical artifacts that might otherwise not be available to students.

“Gaining historical artifacts such as the Forster Flag is great because it provides opportunities for research but also preserves important parts of history and makes them available to a huge population of students who can appreciate them,” Amjadi said. “That access is really cool to me as a history major and as someone who generally appreciates preserving our history and culture.”

Editor’s note: This is the second in a five-part series that focuses on Austin’s video game industry: the history, the creators, the fans and the culture that surrounds it.

Collected within the UT video game archive and housed in the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History are numerous internal design documents and concept artworks for many of the greatest games that were and some that would never be. Like so much about the history of video games, from Japan to Austin, the development processes and conditions under which video games are conceived remain shrouded in mystery.

Austin’s game industry dates back to the early ‘80s, when game designer Richard Garriott was shipping disks in Ziploc bags from his bedroom and game producer Warren Spector was studying film at UT. These two men would go on to build Origin Systems, Austin’s first game studio, but they can hardly take credit for where the industry has gone since those days.

“One of the reasons that Warren Spector was passionate about creating the archive is that when he was a graduate film student [at UT] in the early 1980s — at the same time that he worked at Steve Jackson Games — he was confronted with the extreme lack of documentation regarding early film history, and he didn’t want the same thing to happen to the game industry,” said Zach Vowell, an archivist for the collection.

Design documents serve to conveniently plan and dictate how the production process should work but don’t necessarily reveal how things end up happening. From the chaos of a game’s final weeks of development (they call it “crunch time”) to inside jokes among staff, it’s difficult to learn about the studio culture that these creative works are born in without being a part of it.

Perhaps, then, we should start by talking to the current leaders of Austin’s game industry to gain insight into the creative process and what drives developers to Austin.

Raphael Colantonio is the CEO and studio director of Arkane Studios, a developer based in Lyon, France, that opened an Austin branch in 2007. They have worked on PC and console games that draw heavily on the roleplaying aspects Spector once explored. The studio’s first release in 2002, “Arx Fatalis,” was a brilliant homage to Spector’s first major project at Origin in 1992, “Ultima Underworld.” Along with developing its own games, the studio outsources its talent to other developers to complete work such as designing levels for Treyarch’s “Call of Duty: World at War” and 2K Games’ recently released “Bioshock 2.”

Arkane’s games can best be described as being designed for Spector fans by Spector fans, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that Colantonio chose to move to the city that was the birthplace of many of Spector’s titles. Colantonio views the community aspect among developers as a contributing factor in choosing to move to Austin.

“We can talk to most [other developers] — we see each other often in bars. It’s not like some cities where people are very protective about what they do,” Colantonio said. “We share more; it’s often that we use other people from other companies to playtest our own games.”

Whereas Colantonio expanded his company from Lyon to Austin, Kain Shin, who worked under Colantonio at Arkane’s Austin studio, took a different route.

“I quit my last job so that I could move to France,” Shin said. “I realized that I missed speaking English and I missed Austin, so I came back. It took me leaving it to realize that.”
While Austin game industry veterans continue to build their legacy, there is a new generation of Austin game designers gaining momentum.

“Richard Garriott and Warren Spector are luminaries but they are not necessarily known to the new generation, this being the generation that graduated after 2005,” Shin said.

One of the leading faces of this generation is Michael Wilford, CEO of Twisted Pixel Games, an Austin-based studio that has worked on a series of exuberant, colorful games for Microsoft’s Xbox Live Arcade service: “The Maw” (2008), “‘Splosion’ Man” (2009) and the upcoming “Comic Jumper.” These games are a throwback to the days of zany mascots and simple, refined game design.

“We all have a similar sense of humor,” Wilford said, describing the nature of the studio and the origin of “Splosion’ Man.” “We were all sitting around, talking about what kind of game we wanted to make, and we loved the idea of seeing big panes of glass shattering in games and big, huge explosions. We were like, ‘What if we made a whole game just based around shattering glass and explosions?’ We just kept piling on to this crazy idea.”

After Wilford left his job in Chicago, he moved to Indiana along with company co-founders Josh Bear and Frank Wilson to form a game company out of Bear’s mother’s house.
After completion of “The Maw,” they decided to move out of Bear’s mother’s place and start somewhere new.

“We were having problems finding experienced game-development talent in the Midwest, so we started looking around. We considered Seattle, Raleigh and a whole bunch of other places, but Austin just blew them all away. Low cost of living, low cost of business, the weather, the quality of life — just everything we need is here,” Wilford said. “We’ve been here for a year and a quarter, and none of us are planning on ever leaving.”

Austin studios continue to form and expand, thanks to the support of local government, a talent pool and a rich history. The result: Austin developed games such as “Darksiders” (Vigil Studios), “Metroid Prime Trilogy” (Retro Studios) and “Star Wars: The Old Republic” (Bioware Austin) that have been receiving acclaim and hype in 2010 — making everyone else wonder what’s so special about this city.