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Movies romanticized the Alamo. A new exhibit reconsiders its complicated history

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The new Alamo Collections Center, located on the grounds of the mission-turned fortress, site of the 1836 battle during the Texas Revolution against Mexico, opens on Friday.

It aims to tell the full tale of the Alamo era, unlike the one seen in movies and even in past displays at the state's top tourist attraction.

John Wayne's movie The Alamo, released in 1960, was a largely entertainment-driven-movie that did much to boost tourism for the Alamo. But it also helped bolster myths.

The movie, for example, showed predominantly American-born Anglo defenders inside. There were Mexican-born defenders too who fought alongside Europeans.

The Alamo also had ties to slavery — and Native American groups say the area includes a sacred burial ground.

In the decades since the movie, groups representing Mexican-Americans, Black Americans, and indigenous people have pushed for a more diverse history-telling from the state and the Alamo itself about the people and events before, during, and after the battle.

Apache bow and arrows.jpg
Brian Kirkpatrick
Apache bow and arrows

Their efforts intensified as the city, county, and mostly the state pledged to pump half a billion dollars to make a tourist visit to the Alamo a bigger and more educational experience.

Officials at the Alamo said more of those diverse histories will be told through a new collections center that can display 500 artifacts at a time.

"The Alamo Collections Center is the newest constructed building on the grounds of the Alamo, from the ground up, since the 1950s,” said Jonathan Huhn, the director of communications at the Alamo. "It's truly a game changer because when I came to the site, about a year ago, the one statistic that really surprised me was we could only put 1% of our total artifacts on display."

He added: "Here at the new collections center, after you leave your tour of the church, you'll be able to immerse yourself in so many unique artifacts in the Alamo Collection. That includes the Phil Collins Collection and the newly acquired Donald and Louise Yena Spanish Colonial Collection."

Donald Yena donated a series of paintings to the Center that depict Spanish cattle drives, early settlers, and Comanches.

A painting of the Battle of the Alamo uses painted blasts from cannons as its main source of light.

Alamo Diorama.jpg
Brian Kirkpatrick
The layout of the Alamo diorama is narrated by singer and Alamo collector Phil Collins

“The fall of the Alamo was just before daylight, and you [have to] put enough light in a painting to make the painting, but it was almost pitch dark when the first shot was fired.” he said.

Yena’s painting is next to the Alamo diorama, a miniature model of the mission-fortress. A spotlight lights up different aspects of the model as a recording from Phil Collins, the pop singer and Alamo enthusiast, describes them.

Kolby Lanham, the senior researcher and historian at the Alamo, hopes all Texans will realize that the collections belong to them.

"Texans have put their tax dollars to work here," he said. "And the collection has been gathered over many years. And so, it's there to see."

Some standouts on display include weapons that belonged to Santa Anna, a rifle owned by Davy Crockett, and a small ax whittled by Sam Houston. There’s also a giant pair of Spanish Colonial era boots.

The Alamo expansion project also includes a new visitors center and museum across the street from the famous facade of the Alamo Church. It remains on track for opening in 2026.

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Brian Kirkpatrick can be reached at brian@tpr.org and on Twitter at @TPRBrian