Object: Mortar and pestle

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Prior to 1980
Materials: Stone

When dining at a Mexican restaurant a molcajete like the one pictured above is usually somewhere in sight. It is also commonly found in Mexican households, and is often passed down from generation to generation. In English a molcajete is called a mortar and tejolote, or pestle. The word molcajete comes from the Nahuatl word molcaxitl. Mortar and pestles are made of various materials. The most popular ones are made of ceramic, stone, hard wood, porcelain, basalt, brass, or glass. This object is most likely made of vesicular basalt, a type of volcanic rock. Although a mortar and pestle are also used for medicinal purposes the type pictured above is mostly used for food preparation.


Mango and avocado being mixed in a molcajete. Image via realfoodtraveler.com.

The origins of the molcajete can be traced back centuries. Many have been found in archeological sites including Aztec and Maya civilizations. Although similar to the tripod molcajete, the ones that have been found are called metates. However, they are used for the same purpose which is to process and prepare food. Two popular modern dishes that a molcajate is used for are salsa and guacamole. A traditional recipe for salsa made with a molcajete would call for tomatoes, red and green chilies of your choice, garlic cloves and salt. The tomatoes and chilies are heated on the stove and then crushed on the molcajete. There are many different varieties of salsa you can make using a molcajete, a simple Google search can get you on your way to enjoying tasty salsas.

Absorbing the flavors of every food prepared in it, the molcajete gets better with age. However, when first receiving a new molcajete you will have to do a few steps to prepare it for use, so no grit from the molcajete will end up in your salsa. This is called curing or seasoning the molcajete. People cure their molcajet’s in different ways but a common method is to soak the molcajete in water, then scrub it with a wire brush. After scrubbing, use the molcajete to grind rice until there is not grit inside, then the molcajete is ready to enjoy. However, beware of unauthentic molcajetes which will leave grit in your salsa no matter how many times you try to cure it.

Making an authentic a molcajete can take anywhere from 4-5 hours to complete. The first step in the process usually involves finding the basalt volcanic rock that is needed. Once the stone is found large pieces are cut usually with simple tools. The large stone is then cut into smaller pieces and taken back to where the artisan will work on it. Getting the stone to its final shape has to be done with precision. One wrong step or mistake can ruin the molcajete and the hours spent would have been wasted. The rock ends up with the traditional three legs and sometimes has the head of a pig or bull carved as well. The molcajete has been around for hundreds of years and will probably stick around for a hundred more. [Joscelynn Garcia, edited by Jennifer McPhail]

The following video shows how to make a molcajete:

Additional Resources:
Bray, Tamara L. 2003. The archaeology and politics of food and feasting in early states and empires. New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum. http://site.ebrary.com/id/10069617.

Late archaic across the borderlands: from foraging to farming. 2013. [S.l.]: Univ Of Texas Press. 

Tausend, Marilyn, and Ricardo Muñoz Zurita. 2012. La cocina mexicana: many cultures, one cuisine. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Object: Jacket

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U.S. Army
United States
Materials: Cloth,  metal

This object is a uniform consisting of a jacket and pants from the United States Army. Army uniforms have gone through many changes over the years. This particular uniform style was originally used in World War I, but during World War II a different style of uniform was in use. Due to a shortage of the newer style, many WWI surplus uniforms were issued to soldiers at the beginning of WWII. This seems to be the case with this particular uniform since the patch on it is from a WWII Division.


Map of the Pacific region. It also shows which countries are in control of which areas. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

The 19th Infantry Regiment was first organized 1861 but has since been reorganized, combined with others, and had many changes of assignment. During WWII they participated in the Pacific Theater of the war and one of their assignments was with the 24th Infantry Division. Divisions are large groups of soldiers, made up of several brigades or regiments. This division was also known as the Hawaiian Division during WWII. Later divisions also were formed from the Hawaiian Division such as the 25th Infantry Division which was able to defend Hawaii during World War II.


Taro is a tropical plant grown for its edible starchy stems. Image via http://science.howstuffworks.com

The patch design that the Hawaiian Division used is a  taro leaf in the center with a red background and a black border around the circular patch. The taro leaf is a very important plant in the history of Hawaii and other Pacific Islands. The taro leaf was part of the economic, political, and religious history of Hawaii as well as a dietary staple. At one time there were up to 300 different varieties of taro that were harvested on the Hawaiian islands, the crop was the preferred food source over the sweet potato even though taro required more effort to grow.

Hawaii became a part of the United States, first as a territory in 1898, and then as a state in 1959. Many changes have taken place since receiving statehood. Tourism has greatly expanded as over-sea Pacific travel has become more accessible and affordable. The appearance of the islands began to change as the buildings and activities required to support this tourism rapidly expanded. Even still, the cultural awareness of Hawaiians and other Polynesians has heightened both on and off the islands.

On the islands there are different opportunities for traditional Hawaiian beliefs, practices, and ceremonies to be performed for both entertainment and education. Some Hawaiians have also moved off of the island, to the mainland, bringing their culture and traditions with them. Even in Texas there are Hawaiians that seek to maintain and share their culture through organizations such as the Texas Hawaiian Civic Club. [Abby Goode, edited by Jennifer McPhail]

Additional resources:
Ariyoshi, Rita. 2009. Hawaii. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic.

Dunnigan, James F., and Albert A. Nofi. 1998. The Pacific war encyclopedia. New York: Facts On File.

Forbes, David W. 1992. Treasures of Hawaiian history: from the collection of the Hawaiian Historical Society. Honolulu, Hawai’i: The Society.

Lightner, Richard. 2004. Hawaiian history: an annotated bibliography. Westport, Conn: Praeger.

United States. 1957. 24th Infantry Division, 16th anniversary. [Place of publication not identified]: Produced by Information Section, 24th Infantry Division.

Sneak Peek

The Exhibits and Collections staff here at ITC is just now putting the finishing touches on a new exhibit, “Sikhs: Legacy of the Punjab.” This exhibit was originally developed by the Smithsonian Institution back in 2004. ITC will be redeploying this as a temporary exhibit, with additional information about Sikhs in Texas, starting on February 21st.

You can get a sneak peek of our progress installing it below.

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Photo Quiz

The answer to last month’s quiz is…a Bishop’s miter.


Can you guess what this is?


We’ll post the answer on March 18th. Good luck!

Object: Flute

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Manufactured/made by He Le (approximate translation of Chinese writing on flute; one symbol is un-readable though)
20th Century
Material: Bamboo

This object is a wooden “Ti” flute made out of bamboo with Chinese writing on it. Flutes are thought to be one of the oldest musical instruments. A flute was found in China dating to 900 B.C. but the oldest known flutes have been found in Germany. These very early examples of flutes were made out of bone. Later versions were made out of wood or bamboo; today flutes can also be made of metal or plastic.


Dark bamboo wooden flutes. Image via Serenity Bamboo Flutes.

Flutes are part of the instrument family called woodwind. They are referred to as woodwinds because the original instruments were made out of wood and sound was produced by blowing wind through the instrument. The flute, and its smaller counterpart, called the piccolo which plays much higher notes, are only two of the instruments in the “flute family.”

In some instances, the physical appearance of the flute has changed over time. Originally it was a one-piece instrument, which is often still used today around the world. The westernized flutes that we see in concerts and symphonies in Texas and the United States have since been divided into three different sections that are inserted into each other to play. The amount of holes placed in the cylindrical tube-like instrument is another characteristic that has changed over time. The holes, which you cover with your fingers depending on the sounds that you want, and length of the flute have an impact on the music notes that come out of the flute when played.

We were not able to completely read the inscription on this flute…can you help us? Please leave us a comment below if you can read the inscription and let us know what it says. [Abby Goode, edited by Jennifer McPhail]

Wei Hou – Chinese Wind Instruments

Additional Resources:
Hay, Katherine. 1980. East Asian influence on the composition and performance of contemporary flute music. University Microfilms International.

Lai, T. C., and Robert Mok. 1985. Jade flute: the story of Chinese music. New York: Schocken Books.

Li, Ming. 1995. Di-zi: the history and performance practice of the Chinese bamboo transverse flute. Thesis (Mus. D.)–Florida State University, 1995.


Museum FAQ: Conservation

Recent news stories about damage to the famous gold mummy mask of Pharaoh Tutankhamun (aka. Tut), and a botched amateur mural restoration in Spain from a few years ago, got me thinking about conservation. Specifically, how little most people know about what goes into preserving and restoring historic artifacts. As a museum professional I am fairly well acquainted with the world of museum conservators, but even I am not a trained conservator. As the Curator of Collections, my job is focused on preventing damage to artifacts (aka. preventative conservation), not repairing items. That delicate, and highly specialized task, is one best left to professional museum conservators.

What is museum conservation?

Museum conservation covers a wide range of activities. Conservators are trained to handle everything from cleaning artwork, stabilizing objects weakened by the environment, to reconstructing objects. The goal of any type of conservation treatment is to preserve the artifact without compromising its historic nature. Most treatments are designed to be “reversible.” That way if the resulting repair is later found to be inaccurate, or in any way flawed, the adhesives or colorings used can be easily removed without leaving a permanent mark on the artifact. However, it isn’t always possible to make all treatments fully reversible, particularly when it comes to cleaning artifacts. Once something like a varnish, from a painting or piece of furniture, is removed, it can never truly be restored to the way it was prior to cleaning. Because of this conservators are careful to document everything they do to an artifact so that after the treatment is completed there will always be a record of what was changed and how. This allows later researchers to easily differentiate what part of the object is “original” and which parts were added or changed later.

Museums and collectors alike struggle with conservation decisions, trying to find the right balance between “fixing” and “changing” an artifact. After all, some of our most treasured national artifacts are damaged. The Liberty Bell comes to mind as an excellent example, and has been obviously cracked since the early 1800s.  If the crack was filled and the bell made to look brand new, would it still be the national symbol it is today?

The following video shows more of what museum conservators do.

Where can I find a conservator?

Most museum’s collections staff are trained in the best practices of object storage, in order to prevent deterioration of artifacts in their care. However, if an object has been damaged, either through accident or simple age, a conservator must be found to safely treat the resulting damage. While most museum professionals hold fixed positions at one museum, conservation is becoming a field increasingly dominated by independent contractors. Relatively few museums have the resources to keep a full-time conservator on staff. Additionally, the field of conservation is so broad that most conservators are forced to specialize in a particular type of object care. For instance, there are specialized conservators for paintings, textiles, photographs, and wooden objects who work on nothing but their particular specialties. For this reason, museums and private collectors rely on professional conservation organizations, like the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works, Intermuseum Conservation Association, the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property, and others to help locate qualified conservators.

Learn more about museum conservation….

American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works

International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property

Smithsonian Museum Conservation Institute

Journal of Conservation and Museum Studies

Canadian Conservation Institute

Midwest Regional Conservation Guild

Object: Birdcage

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Unknown,  likely Texan
Late 20th Century
Materials: Bamboo

This object is a birdcage made of bamboo and designed to resemble a cathedral. The structure is held together with small pins  of bamboo and a small amount of adhesive in some of the more delicate areas. The joints are created by taking the two pieces to be joined and drilling holes into them, then placing a smaller piece of bamboo into the holes to hold the two larger pieces together.


Bamboo trees in Kyoto, Japan. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Bamboo is a plant that can grow almost anywhere with little effort. At one time it was found on every continent except Antarctica and Europe. The plant is most commonly associated with Southeast Asia, but there are many different types of bamboo grown around the globe. It is one of the fastest growing plants in the world and some varieties of bamboo can live for more than 120 years. There are anywhere from 1,200 to 1,500 different species in the world. Bamboo is a major food source for many different animals, such as the giant panda, red panda and Madagascar‘s bamboo lemur.

Bamboo releases more oxygen into the air and absorbs more carbon dioxide than other plants, which can be very helpful from an environmental perspective. It grows back quickly, allowing it to be cut down as needed without to the worry of the years it would take a normal tree to grow back. Bamboo reaches maturity within 3-5 years unlike many other plants. Many countries count on this renewable resource. Bamboo is also used to prevent soil erosion in places that are having excessive deforestation.

Bamboo is as strong as steel, allowing it to be used as construction material for walls, floors, furniture and art. Many of the objects that we use every day could be made of bamboo. For instance, wooden spatulas or spoons, cutting boards, patio furniture, baskets, or even cabinets. Here in Texas there are several different types of bamboo that can be grown safely and successfully. [Abby Goode, edited by Jennifer McPhail]

Additional Resources:
Bal, Lalit Mohan, Lalit Mohan Bal, Lalit Mohan Bal, and P. Sudhakar. 2012. “Bamboo shoot: a potential source of food security”. Mediterranean Journal of Nutrition and Metabolism. 5 (1): 1-10. 

Lucas, Susanne. 2013. Bamboo.

Zea Escamilla, Edwin, and G. Habert. 2014. “Environmental impacts of bamboo-based construction materials representing global production diversity”. Journal of Cleaner Production. 69 (1): 117-127.

Asian Festival Visitors Guide

Check out the 2015 Asian Festival visitors guide to see when your favorite groups will be performing, and what great food offerings we’ll have from our community participants.

card copy

Object: Commemorative Plate

I-0662a name concealed
Commemorative Plate
Materials: Ceramic, Glaze, Paint

This commemorative plate was presented to the Programs Division of the Institute of Texan Cultures by a member of the San Antonio community and participant in the ITC’s Annual Asian Festival. The inscription on the plate reads,

Congratulations for Asian New Year Festival 2000.
It is my honor to participate in this festival that opens the new era of another millennium.
I wish you all the best of health, creative life, and lasting glory of god.
February 6, 2000.”

2015 will be the 28th year that the Asian Festival will take place here in San Antonio. The festival started as a traditional family reunion 28 years ago and has grown to encompass the Asian community as a whole. The festival gives the entire San Antonio community the ability to see and experience the many different Asian cultures of the San Antonio metro area. There is music, dances, and of course food to try and cooking demonstrations.


The Chinese Zodiac. Image via internchina.com

The Asian Festival always takes place during the Lunar New Year, with this year’s festival falling on Saturday, February 21st. February 19th is the actual New Year’s Day and marks the beginning of the year 4713 under the Chinese Calendar. The Chinese Calendar follows the lunar cycle, which tracks the cycles of the moon. In the lunar cycle, the first day of each month begins with the new moon (when the moon is at its darkest).

Each year of the Chinese Calendar is associated with a zodiac symbol. These Chinese Zodiac symbols are represented by 12 different animals: rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep/ram, monkey, rooster, dog, and boar/pig. This year will be the year of the sheep/ram. The Chinese zodiac cycles every 12 years so for your “sign” to come back around you have to wait 12 years. This is unlike the 12 signs of the Astrological Zodiac which cycle throughout each year.

The New Year has several festivities associated with it, but the most important component of the celebration is spending time with family and friends. We have discussed some of these traditions in depth in a previous blog entry, click here to see it.

Please join us on Saturday, February 21st from 10am to 5pm at the Institute of Texan Cultures!! For ticket information follow the link! [Jennifer McPhail]

Discovering China – Chinese New Year!

Additional Reading:

Aijmer, Göran. 2003. New year celebrations in central China in late imperial times. Hong Kong: Chinese University Press.

Alston, Isabella, and Kathryn Dixon. 2013. Chinese Zodiac. Havertown: TAJ Books International. http://public.eblib.com/choice/publicfullrecord.aspx?p=1590862.

Flanagan, Alice K., Svetlana Zhurkina, and Linda D. Labbo. 2004. Chinese New Year. Minneapolis, Minn: Compass Point Books.

Hu, William C. 1991. Chinese New Year: fact and folklore. Ann Arbor, Mich: Ars Ceramica.

Object: Drawing

I-0029g (1)
Mid Twentieth Century
Paper and Ink

This is a drawing of Lyndon Baines Johnson by artist Jack “Herc” Ficklen of The Dallas Morning News. Jack “Herc” Ficklen was born in Waco, Texas and worked for The Dallas Morning News from around 1930 till 1940 and again from 1946 till his retirement 30 years later. From 1940 to 1945, Ficklen served in the United States Army. Ficklen was a cartoonist that alternated with John Knott on the daily editorial cartoons. Jack “Herc” Ficklen continued to draw up until his death in 1980.

LBJ House

The LBJ House. Photo via johnsoncitytx.org.

Lyndon Baines Johnson was born on August 27, 1908 in Stonewall, Texas, which is just outside Johnson City, Texas. Johnson started his political career in 1937 when he was elected to the House of Representatives. During World War II, Johnson served in the United States Navy as a Lieutenant Commander. In 1948 Johnson was elected to the Senate and became the youngest Minority Leader in the history of the Senate and the following year he became the Majority Leader. In 1960 Johnson became the Vice Presidential running mate for John F. Kennedy.  With JFK’s victory, Johnson served as Vice President until November 22, 1963 when Kennedy was assassinated and Johnson became the 36th President of the United States. Johnson won the 1964 Presidential election by a landslide, but in 1968 Johnson declined to run for office and left the Presidency in 1969. Johnson died outside Johnson City on January 22, 1973.

Johnson City, Texas is a small city in the Texas Hill Country about an hour west of Austin. Johnson City was named after James Polk Johnson who offered a 320-acre plot of land on the Pedernales River as the site for the new town in 1879. It was during the 1930’s that rural parts of Central Texas, including Johnson City, received modern utilities. Lyndon B Johnson, who had grown up in the rural community and was a relative of the founder of the city, sponsored the legislation for electricity to be made available in this area. While Johnson was President, Johnson City and the surrounding rural hill country was also able to upgrade their telephone service. When Johnson left office he made a gift of his personal property to the United States, which became the Lyndon Baines Johnson National Historical Park. [Jennifer McPhail]

Lyndon B Johnson – The Great Society

Additional Resources:
Caro, Robert A. 1982. The years of Lyndon Johnson. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Darden, Bob. 1983. Drawing power: Knott, Ficklen, and McClanahan, editorial cartoonists of the Dallas morning news. Waco, Tex: Markham Press Fund.

Ficklen, Jack, and Cindy C. Smolovik. 1987. Herc Ficklen collection register.

Peters, Charles. 2010. Lyndon B. Johnson. New York: Times Books.

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