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The Alamo in San Antonio Wins UNESCO Status, And It Couldn't Come at a More Embarrassing Time

The Alamo in San Antonio, Texas, has just been inscribed with one of the most prestigious designations in international tourism: It and the four other San Antonio Missions now comprise a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

It's only the 23rd such site in the United States and the first for Texas.

The Alamo, if you don't remember your grammar school history, was the place where American settlers in what was then Mexico failed miserably in their quest to rebel againt Mexican control. The slaughter was so shocking that the losers' cause was galvanized, eventually resulting in Texas being wrested from Mexico—becoming a slave state and helping to further inflame the divisions that would cause the American Civil War. 

The area around the Alamo isn't likely to change much—it's already Texas' most popular tourist site, attracting 2.5 million people a year, and tourist trappings from tchotchke shops to a Ripley's Believe It Or Not! Odditorium have clustered around it, basking in the overflow visitor spending. They will remain—many of the mission's original outbuildings were long ago destroyed, the land sold off, and now the little shrine is dismayingly hemmed in by modern office buildings and a churning tourism ecosystem.

But the designation by the United Nations elevates the status of the Alamo itself as an indisputably precious treasure of world history, and from now on a curatorial spotlight will remain focused on how it is preserved and run.

And that's a source of particular embarrassment at the moment. Texas is grappling with how to best curate the Alamo, and the shift isn't going well.

Right now, there's a lawsuit between the Daughters of the Republic of Texas, which in 2011 was fired from its management of the Alamo after 110 years, and the group that replaced it. The new custodians, the General Land Office, has claimed the a 30,000-item collection of Alamo-related papers and artifacts collected by the DRT should belong to them, and by proxy, the people of Texas. The DRT disputes that.

At the same time, a spectacular $100 million collection of historical items (including Davy Crockett's rifle) was donated by musician Phil Collins, who even wrote a book about his obsession. His donation has been waiting for a new museum to be properly displayed, but that's still in the planning stage, and pending the outcome of the lawsuit, it's unclear what the so-far-nebulous museum will even display.

Which leaves us with its current situation, which deprives visitors of the best tangible relics and instead forces them to glean their understanding of the Alamo largely from a History Channel-produced video and a nearly two decade-old film presentation at a nearby AMC cinema. This is not world-class interpretation.

The UNESCO award has made the artifact and management disputes immeasurably more public and embarrassing. History can be easily lost or mistold, and now that UNESCO has recognized the preciousness of the Alamo, let's hope Texans can come together to manage the site in a manner that is truly world class. Up to now, it has fallen short, but it's time to unite to give the presentational respect that the place has now been proven to deserve.

Click here to read Frommer's' coverage of the Alamo and how to make the most of a visit.


Photo credit: TomSaint/Flickr