Public Historian on Vacation: Part 3 – San Antonio Beyond the Alamo

Our first day in San Antonio included barbecue and a tour of the Alamo, but also a trip to a less traditional kind of museum, Barney Smith’s Toilet Seat Art Museum.

Yes, toilet seat art. Barney Smith, a former plumber and volunteer firefighter turned artist has collected and decorated hundreds, maybe thousands, of toilet seats. Each has a theme and most are what art galleries would call mixed media. Small objects glued to the seats and then painted and drawn on, each toilet seat tells a story or centers around a theme. Open by appointment, the gallery is Mr. Smith’s garage and the 96-year-old artist himself tells visitors about the highlights of the collection.

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The toilet seats tell Barney Smith’s personal history, with one toilet seat even labeled as his personal toilet seat. Lift the lid and it traces his careers as a fireman, a plumber, and an artist. There are also several toilet seats commemorating his wedding anniversaries, his life with his wife, and his relationships with his children. Some seats tell the history of his art and its reach, with toilet seats for all of the states and countries his visitors have come from.

Other seats though mark important local events such as festivals, the Fiesta Pooch Parade, local civic organizations. And others speak to Mr. Smith’s memories of regional or national historical events. For example, one seat features a piece of the Space Shuttle Challenger, another a piece of the Berlin Wall.

This museum is both personal and public. Private but on display. Local but national, even international. Personal reflections on bigger stories. It really reminded me of one of the first books I read for graduate school, Private History in Public, actually written by my professor and adviser, Dr. Tammy Gordon. In it she writes about historical exhibits that “complicate the public/private dichotomy, exhibits that promote individualized perspectives to strangers and cement ties between relatives, friends, colleagues, and community members.” Barney Smith’s toilet seat museum is a prime example of this. Touring it with my husband, my mom, and my grandparents, we were all pointing out various seats to one another, discussing our own remembrances or knowledge about the various events, topics, and places that were depicted on the seats. It was clear that the community of San Antonio was involved with Mr. Smith’s work, with local commendations, awards, and donations to his collection on display with his seats. And being shown around by Barney himself allowed us to see and hear his perspective on his art, on the seats he thought would most interest us, and on the historical events depicted. As Gordon discusses in Private History in Public, these kinds of non-traditional, small museums enable this dialogue. Furthermore, the interest in this museum speaks to people’s interest in individual stories and individualized pasts, a point made in Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen’s foundational work, The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life. People are interested in history, in the past, in others’ stories, but more in ways in which they can connect to their own stories and pasts. This may be why historic sites and museums continue to struggle with visitor numbers. People want to see a past that they feel connected to.

At Barney Smith’s Toilet Seat Art Museum, there was something for everyone. Something to feel connected to, and an intimate setting in which to discuss the past, memories, and more.

To read more about Barney Smith’s Toilet Art Museum, visit the Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SATXTSAM/. Recently a book of his works was published via crowdfunding: https://www.cattywampuspress.com/shop-1/king-of-the-commode

And a recent article about how Mr. Smith is looking for a buyer of the whole collection: http://www.krqe.com/news/national/the-king-of-the-commode-seeks-an-heir-to-his-thrones/1192867384

Next post will be about the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park.

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