The Astrodome is similar in design to a historic dwelling of the Caddo Indians in East Texas. Caddo dwelling roof structure photo by Mark Lacy. Astrodome roof structure graphic by James Glassman (www.houstorian.org).

A future in service to Houston for the Astrodome

Originally published April 10, 2015, by Mark Lacy; an update is planned.


The question of what to do with the Astrodome has been posed wrong. Through a proposition on the ballot and a call for proposals, Harris County incorrectly asked, what can taxpayers or business entrepreneurs do for the Dome? And there are some mysterious guidelines to go by that restrict our thinking to, how can the Dome serve the Texans and the Rodeo?

The better question is, what can the Astrodome do for Houston and the world? The Astrodome presents the perfect opportunity to make Houston a world class museum city by opening several visionary museums in it. The world's great cities provide excellent museums that emphasize education, cultural experience and quality of life. In turn, the cities benefit from extensive cultural exchange, trade and tourism.

In the 2012 World Cities Culture Report, London Mayor Boris Johnson said, "World cities are international hubs for commerce and trade, but as this groundbreaking report makes clear, they are powerhouses for culture too -- in London the creative industries alone contribute 19 billion ($28 billion) to our economy and employ 386,000 people. In coming together as city leaders and policymakers we want to harness the full potential of culture, which makes our cities exciting and desirable places to live in and visit, but also makes a massive contribution to wider social and economic goals."

Is opening a museum complex inside the historic Astrodome a good goal in Texas, where winning in football is considered the highest achievement? About 600,000 fans attend home games during the season of a professional football team, while 30 million people enter the Smithsonian museums each year (more than the combined season attendance of the 32 professional football teams). Many prominent museums across the nation and around the world are visited annually by two to six million people.

Though I'm not in the position of Harris County leaders, who certainly have these abilities, I would establish these two goals:

1) Form a "super board" for the museum complex. Involve the most capable Houston business, academic, science, arts and community leaders in the goal to establish a major international museum. Seek the support of Houston's current museums, universities and foundations in forming the governing board of about 100 leaders to ensure the vision will be achieved with financial backing. Make sure there is a clear understanding that the addition of a major museum in Houston will not harm the Houston Museum of Natural Science or the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, but rather it will increase visitation and support for all of Houston's museums. The governing board will be responsible to establish supporting foundations and friends groups, capable to implement an initial $300-500 million capital campaign, and ultimately hire the professional staff that will create and manage the museums.

2) Set a goal for Houston to join the ranks of the nation's major cities in museum attendance. With the Smithsonian Institution in the nation's capital at the very top, Washington DC may be out of reach. But Houston should rank with New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago. Through the planning and marketing efforts of museums in the Astrodome, numbers of visitors comparable to the Houston Museum of Natural Science at two million should be the first goal. Substantially more is achievable.

Of the three major subject areas of successful museums around the world -- science, art and culture -- it would seem easy to determine what Houston needs most and where it can contribute most to the world. After all, Houston has excellent art museums: the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, the Menil Collection, the Contemporary Arts Museum, and more. And Houston has top science museums: the Houston Museum of Natural Science and Space Center Houston.

As a subject, culture is fascinating to people and meets our needs for better understanding of humanity. Culture spans the origins of civilizations to modern occupations and social life, and even the ways we will live in the future. Culture, or the history and ways of life of peoples around the world, is interpreted through anthropology, archaeology, economics, geography, history, journalism, political science, sociology, urban planning, and more. A museum of culture in the Astrodome opens the possibility for multiple museums under its umbrella, extensive involvement of thousands of area students on field trips, and auxiliary outreach efforts throughout the region.

To imagine the possibilities for a museum of culture, look to the British Museum (London), the Museum of New Mexico (Santa Fe), the Asian Civilisations Museum (Singapore), the Museum of World Culture (Gothenburg, Sweden), and of course our national museum of culture, the Smithsonian Institution (Washington DC).

The ideal model for an umbrella organization in Houston includes a collection of units of various sizes, basically supporting a wide variety of interests for visitors. This may include: a major museum of culture; midsize museums of oceanography (a natural fit for the Gulf Coast and an interesting complement to Houston's role in space exploration) and music history (another subject where Houston and the greater region excels, but has not interpreted and showcased its role for the world); centers for public art and public history; and, a DNA/genealogy lab. It should include a major education conference center and public exhibit halls -- one featuring history of the Astrodome and Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, and the other with impressive rotating exhibits by arts groups like the Houston International FotoFest.

To enhance the vision, imagine a busy schedule of performances, panel discussions, lectures, film screenings, book signings, and live demonstrations of food traditions and cultural arts. It would be important to invite John Nau, who envisions a heritage and welcome center for Houston, and the Heritage Society to include an outreach center to interpret Houston history and heritage for visitors. Houstonians and visitors alike will be enticed daily by a group of restaurants, also ideal for catering school visits and conferences: Texas/Cajun, Pan African, Central European and Mediterranean, South Asian, Andean, and perhaps a Mexican cafe with a la cart items and desserts.

Given the need for greater understanding of international religions, the rapidly changing role of social media, economics, health, and the effects of climate and environment on our ways of life, it would be difficult to think of something more important than a museum of culture.

Imagine the kinds of services that are possible to enhance visitors' experiences and generate revenue to support the operation in the Dome. An oceanography museum can transport visitors by tour boat between the Houston Maritime Museum on the Ship Channel, the Kemah Boardwalk, and the Texas Seaport Museum in Galveston, and possibly coordinate with the future National Park Service Commemorative Area on the Ship Channel, while also offering extended tours for scuba enthusiasts to the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary off the Texas coast. A museum of culture might partner with area churches, temples and sacred sites for cross-cultural education tours and cultural competency workshops. A music history museum can provide evening concerts and a regional hall of fame, along with outreach services in schools.

Many great museums have come into existence due to opportunities in transitioning from worldwide events or major gifts into beneficial, permanent public resources. The British Museum was founded in 1753 and by 1835 a British citizen, James Smithson, donated the initial funding for American's leading museum, the Smithsonian Institution. Chicago's Field Museum was established in facilities built for the 1893 World's Fair, which was viewed as an opportunity for the city to rebound after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. When the Field Museum moved to its current location, Museum Campus on Lake Michigan in 1921, the vacated space became another leading institution, the Museum of Science and Industry. Fair Park in Dallas has housed many museums and performance centers since the opening of the 1936 Texas Centennial Exposition. Many San Antonio institutions, including the Institute for Texan Cultures, were born from the 1968 World's Fair at HemisFair Park.

The Field Museum is an excellent model for what museums in the Astrodome are able to offer. It was established for "the accumulation and dissemination of knowledge, and the presentation and exhibition of artifacts illustrating art, archaeology, science and history." Its anthropological and cultural exhibits cover 480,000 square feet and the museum produces touring exhibits. The building features an open central hall that covers half an acre, which is frequently used for special events.

Another example, the American Museum of Natural History, located in New York City's Central Park, was commissioned in 1869. The 1,600,000 square foot museum sponsors 120 field expeditions each year and is only able to exhibit a small portion of the millions of human cultural artifacts in its collection. Like the Smithsonian, National Geographic Society and the Field Museum, it creates and tours its exhibitions. The American Museum of Natural History serves five million visitors annually.

Most of the great museums -- from the classical architecture of the Field Museum to the modern nature-inspired design of the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian -- have large open halls or atriums, but few as large as the Astrodome's 1.5 acre playing surface. That may be small for a park, but possibly the right size for small festivals, performances and exciting activities, of which many have been proposed. Competition in this area is steep. Most people enjoy the free activities provided by strolling Miami Beach, the Santa Monica Pier, the Chicago Lakefront and the Kemah Boardwalk. But for ticketed attractions, people have very high expectations. For example, the Hualapai tribe has built a glass skywalk over part of the Grand Canyon and the 100-story John Hancock Center offers "360 Chicago", which suspends people in a glass case high over the city for a 360 degree view of downtown Chicago.

At 1,000,000 square feet, the Astrodome has the space necessary for major museum exhibits and special events or activities. Like the National Museum of the American Indian, the Dome is an architectural marvel. And its story is relative to the story of modern culture.



The Astrodome is a phenomenal monument to civilization. During its 50 years, it has hosted most every kind of social activity important to civilizations, including performing arts, athletic competitions, political discourse, religion and entertainment. And it has provided shelter for people in dire need following Hurricane Katrina.

These weren't insignificant events: In 1965, the Astrodome signaled Houston's peaceful, quiet transition into the era of Civil Rights and desegregation as an integrated sports facility on Opening Day; The 1973 "Battle of the Sexes" tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs kicked the Women's Liberation Movement into high gear following King's win; The 1979 Southern Baptist Convention meeting in the Dome sealed the conservative takeover of the powerful religious organization; The 1992 Republican National Convention nominated George Bush and Dan Quayle for reelection on a post-Berlin Wall platform that, in addition to family values and deregulation, promoted leading the Information Age and pioneering new space exploration.

In 1968, the first nationally-televised, prime time basketball game between University of Houston and UCLA, called the "Game of the Century", was played in the Dome. Over the years, the Astrodome presented Elvis Presley, Selena, The Rolling Stones, The Jacksons, Stevie Ray Vaughan, George Strait, Judy Garland, Pink Floyd, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and The Who, to name just a few. And for added excitement, Evel Knievel jumped 13 cars on a motorcycle on two consecutive nights for a combined 100,000 fans.

As Houstonians, we all seem to know the stories of Judge Roy Hoffheinz, Astroturf, Earl Campbell, Bum Phillips and Bud Adams, who moved the Houston Oilers to Tennessee in 1997. Even I, not a baseball fan, lined up in the Astrodome parking lot with thousands of other poor souls for hours in the blazing sun to get tickets for Game Six of the 1986 National League Championship, a heartbreaking 16-inning Astros' loss to the New York Mets. The event, it seems, will never be forgotten by Houston sports fans.

Sad memories of the Astros and the Oilers may be the reason some in Houston want the Dome gone. They often note nostalgia as the worst reason to preserve the historic landmark.

The irony is that many who would not support renovating the Dome, would probably also not vote to pay for its demolition. The Dome ranks among Houston's sturdiest structures and, if we can't use it, demolishing it won't be cheap. It was built with heavy steel, like the Eiffel Tower and Golden Gate Bridge. And it is about as iconic.

To use it well, Houston is fully capable to envision and fund one of the greatest museums in the world. While most museums hold substantial collections, a museum complex in the Astrodome will feature significant numbers of traveling exhibits. With so few major museums, the Houston public currently does not have the opportunity to see very many touring exhibitions. Changing exhibitions are seen by administrators as important to keep regular museum visitors engaged.

The new museums in the Dome will provide tremendous opportunity for local involvement, particularly from area universities, whose faculty -- from architecture to the social sciences and future studies -- are the experts in understanding culture. New media and interactive technology will be utilized. Other advantages include being able to avoid the pitfalls of owning collections of other nations' artifacts.

As the Astrodome turns 50, the question remains, can we do something exciting and productive with it that will interest masses of visitors and serve the world? If we only consider sports, the answer will most certainly be Houston's usual response, tear it down. It will only be useful again as a sports venue if Houston ever has a chance to host the Olympics. Without significant attractions in Houston, opportunities to host the Olympics, World Cup soccer or even the World's Fair are scarce. World class cities are expected to offer more than big athletic events, even if they are being considered to host a major sports festival like the Olympics or World Cup. Museums and cultural interests are considered and weigh heavily in the decisions of organizing committees.

This is where Houston's greatest paradox comes in. Houston is the confluence of many historic and modern international cultures in the United States. The city and the greater region with Houston at its center, from the Mississippi River to the Rio Grande, is the most interesting cultural landscape America has to offer. Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca's Relaccion, the oldest written history of life in the modern boundaries of the United States describes several years of experience by Spanish and African explorers, where they arrived on the Gulf Coast in 1528 and lived among the indigenous people of the region. As the second largest port of immigration in the Nineteenth Century, following Ellis Island, Galveston contributed significantly to Houston and the region's diverse populations.

Houston has more history and cultural interests than most anyone understands or cares to admit. In fact, few places rank as high in importance as our Gulf Coast region. Houston's role in the way we live in the modern world is equally significant. From movements for Civil Rights and Women's Equality, to defining national policy and sheltering survivors of Hurricane Katrina, the Astrodome represents all aspects of modern social and cultural issues. While many Houstonians feel they are isolated from the rest of the world, they fail to consider Houston's role in energy and space, or immigration and diversity. Like Houston's deliberate, peaceful transition to become a relatively integrated city during the Civil Rights movement, its advantages in industry and diversity also require it to do well in a future of environmental challenges and global cultural conflicts.

The Dome has a few valuable things going for it even without doing anything. Architecturally, it is important. The Astrodome was the first one in the trend of modern covered stadiums. People often find it more attractive than more modern stadiums. It is a historic site. It may currently be a kind of modern ghost town, but it is not in ruins. As an athletic and entertainment venue, it is a reminder of the long lineage of public places -- the Roman Stadium of Domitian (dating to 80 AD), the Roman Circus Maximus (dating to Sixth Century BC), and the Greek Stadium at Olympia (dating to 776 BC) -- simply by standing. It is a museum of modern civilization, just because of the people and events it housed, even without exhibits or artifacts.

The Astrodome is where I believe Houston has its greatest opportunity -- to launch a world-renown museum of culture. According to The Atlantic (November 2013), "the Astrodome was once the country's third-most-popular manmade tourist attraction, behind only the Golden Gate Bridge and Mount Rushmore." Without natural attractions or big entertainment industries, Houston must take regaining a distinction like that very seriously. With its historic status, immense scale and financial requirements, the Astrodome must be a major attraction. It should strive to reach the ranks of the world's most interesting and visited cultural institutions.


Note: A condensed version of this appeared in the Houston Chronicle's Gray Matters on April 9, 2015.

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