It is the purpose of the Museum of the Gulf Coast as mandated by the Port Arthur Historical Society to “collect, preserve, display and interpret the heritage of southeast Texas and southwest Louisiana;” that regional area defined as being bordered by Houston at its western boundary and New Orleans at its eastern boundary.
The Museum of the Gulf Coast had its beginning in 1964 when the State of Texas chartered the old Port Arthur Museum. Encouragement for a museum had begun even earlier, when during WWII, Sears, Roebuck & Co. sponsored a contest encouraging that such organizations be established to perpetuate the history of the area as a patriotic gesture.
Once chartered under the auspices of the Federated Women’s Club, a museum of sorts was opened in the old Adams building in downtown Port Arthur. In 1970 the Port Arthur Historical Society was formed, dedicated to restoring a historic turn-of-the-century residence on Lakeshore Drive. The museum languished in the immediate downtown area in the Merchant’s National Bank until 1980, when it was relocated to a wing of Gate’s Memorial Library on the campus of Lamar University – Port Arthur.
In 1987, the Society hired a consultant who recommended that the scope of the museum be enlarged to encompass the current parameters. The Board of Directors adopted this plan, and in 1989, hired an exhibit design firm from Austin, Texas to lay out an interpretive format based on the consultant’s expanded concept of a Gulf Coast museum. A year later the Society acquired the present structure for a modest sum and paid for an adaptation of the design plan by Exhibit Specialties. Major renovation of the building was necessary and demolition began immediately.
Between 1991 and 1994, demolition continued and renovation began, culminating in a contract with Southwest Museum Services in 1993 to design and help install the contemplated exhibits. Special display areas were incorporated into the mezzanine floor and after completion of the construction- phase, the museum opened its doors on July 2, 1994. With the exception of a major plumbing leak which shut the building down for six weeks in the summer of 1996 and the mandatory evacuation that resulted from Hurricane Rita in 2005, the museum has been open seven days a week, except for major holidays ever since 1994.
The Museum is currently staffed by five full-time employees from Lamar State College – Port Arthur (LSCPA) including a director, curator, education coordinator, secretary and custodian. In addition, the museum is assisted by part-time student assistants from LSCPA, as well as a multitude of volunteers. In addition to the Port Arthur Historical Society and LSCPA, the Museum is supported by a partnership with the City of Port Arthur.
For over a decade, the Museum has successfully provided an entertaining and educational experience for its visitors which consist of residents and tourists alike. With innovative permanent and temporary exhibits as well as adult and youth programs, the Museum continues to preserve and display the rich heritage of this diverse region.
Annual visitation averages 14,000 with total visitation exceeding the 150,000 mark. With an increasing emphasis on educational outreach the Museum hosts over 5,000 children every year through free school tours and outreach programs that target local youth including a summer camp focusing on environmental stewardship, an after school program focusing on arts appreciation, an interactive pre-K program, a teen club, hands-on tours and classroom visits. The Museum also offers periodic free family fun days inspired by temporary exhibitions.
In addition, the Museum serves as a resource for archival documents and photographs for academic researchers as well as local, national and international media. A variety of programs such as lectures, workshops, receptions and performances are presented to the public throughout the year, providing an enriching cultural resource for the entire community.
Scope of Exhibits
Located at 700 Procter Street in downtown Port Arthur, the Museum’s 39,000 square foot facility contains a myriad of exhibits which capture the essence of life along the Upper Gulf Coast. Permanent displays include exhibits on pre-Columbian to present-day history and natural history, the petrochemical and maritime industries, seashells and decorative arts. First floor displays include a 125’ mural and diorama depicting the history of the Gulf Coast region from the prehistoric era to the discovery of oil at Spindletop as well as Civil War cannons and a pioneer cabin.
The Museum’s popular culture galleries highlight musicians, sports legends and notable people native to the area such as Janis Joplin, the Big Bopper, Jimmy Johnson, Bubba Smith, Major “Tom” Collins and actress Evelyn Keyes. Visitors are awed and inspired by the magnitude of talent and achievement that has emanated from the Gulf Coast region. The Museum also hosts the Robert Rauschenberg Gallery displaying the works of the internationally renowned artist and Port Arthur native as well as the John and Grace Snell Gallery displaying a fine collection of rare decorative arts and Victorian parlor.
In the Rotating Gallery, the museum features a wide variety of temporary exhibitions consisting of traveling exhibitions and objects on loan as well as objects from the museum’s own collection. Exhibitions may be art, science or history based, but always relevant to the culture and heritage of the Gulf Coast. The variety of subject matter covered reveals the diversity and intrigue of this Gulf Coast region, giving the visitor a well-rounded and informative experience.
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