A new interactive website from the City’s Office of Historic Preservation (OHP), called Past, Present, Future and billed as a museum without walls, serves as a portal to San Antonio’s heritage. The site is a repository of cultural narratives, offering human context rather than physical artifacts. 

The project is part of the OHP’s living heritage division, which, among other work and initiatives, hosts the Living Heritage Symposium (LHS), a gathering of local, national, and international living heritage experts that convenes with the purpose of developing best practices for the preservation of cultural heritage, using San Antonio as a model. 

The LHS was hosted annually from 2017 to 2019, and will now occur every other year, with the next symposium set for 2021. 

Shanon Shea Miller, director of the OHP, said that the museum without walls is something that her staff has been planning for many years. The shift, she said, of the LHS from every year to every other year, presented 2020 as an ideal year to launch the project.

As the COVID-19 crisis hit, Miller and the living heritage team, which consists of cultural historian Claudia Guerra and deputy historic preservation officer Kathy Rodriguez, decided to launch the site as soon as possible in order to offer San Antonians an online space to visit while sheltering at home. In mid-April, they took the site live, and have since posted five stories, including an introduction to the project.

The other four stories posted to the site thus far include “The Donkey Lady,” which looks at the origin of a peculiar local legend; “Machacado con Huevos,” which goes deep on the long history of a regional dish; “Cascarones,” which traces the international and local trajectory of a San Antonio springtime staple; and “Sanitary Tortillas,” which offers up the history of a curiously named local company with roots in the 1920s.

The history of Sanitary Tortillas holds a bit of special relevance for the San Antonian learning about it during the coronavirus pandemic. The company’s name represented an attempt by owners to distinguish themselves as dependably hygienic amid increased health concerns following a number of epidemics and pandemics that impacted the city in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Miller said that the living heritage team has “been collecting oral histories and conducting cultural mapping to learn more about San Antonio’s intangible heritage” over the past four years.

Miller and her team thought that it would be ideal to launch the Past, Present, Future site with some of the stories they had most recently been digging into.

The whole idea of the initiative is to connect “San Antonians to their stories and their heritage in a nontraditional and informal way that people can use when and how it’s best for them.”

As San Antonians learn about the project, Miller is eager to see “more people in the community get engaged and share their stories with us.” She said the OHP invites the community to pitch their own stories and do their own cultural reporting for possible inclusion in the museum without walls.

Mimi Quintanilla, former director of the Witte Museum, who currently acts as a consultant to museums and other cultural institutions, lauded the project as timely and important.

As a lifelong San Antonian, who lives in the historic River Road neighborhood, Quintanilla said she discovered something new about her city through the project.

“You think when you grow up here, and live in one of the old areas of the city, that you know everything,” said Quintanilla. “But I didn’t know how the Sanitary Tortilla Factory got its name.”

“It’s important,” she said, “because we don’t usually think about culture as intangible things that we can’t touch or look at.”

For her, this project is “about finding context to the stories of our lives.”

“I think artifacts are important, don’t get me wrong, that has been my whole career,” Quintanilla said, “but I think that the story part, which we try to bring across in museums in various ways, is the context. And that’s what the museum without walls is all about: that context and those stories.”

Arthur Wolf, a Las Vegas-based consultant to museums and other cultural institutions, has worked on cultural projects in San Antonio and has been a part of every LHS to date.

He recognizes San Antonio as “one of the leaders in looking at intangible cultural heritage, which is now a big point of emphasis from the International Council of Museums.”

Wolf sees the Past, Present, Future collection as “a permanent record that is accessible to the whole community, that will become a teaching tool — both formally and informally.”

“These vignettes,” he said, “will be very meaningful personally to individual families, but also for people who are newly arrived to San Antonio. It’s a great way for people to find grounding in San Antonio history.”

Miller said that she hopes “people can see themselves reflected in these stories and also maybe learn a little something they didn’t know.”

“For people who are newer to the city,” she said, “it still may spur memories of similar experiences in their own childhood” and help them “learn more about what makes San Antonio such a unique and culturally rich place to live and visit.”

James Courtney is a freelance arts and culture journalist in San Antonio. He also is a poet, a high school English teacher and debate coach, and a proud girl dad.