A celebration of color, shape, and texture greets the view of visitors to a unique cultural experience in Brownsville: the eye-popping Costumes of the Americas Museum.
Inspired by a spirit of cooperation and understanding among countries going back to roots in the Pan American Union (today’s Organization of American States), the museum opened in 2005 in Brownsville’s Mitte Cultural Education Center.
Topical in that it is all things textile, and geographical in that it is based on the Pan American Union, the museum collects, catalogs, preserves, and exhibits authentic indigenous textiles, accessories, and folk arts of the Americas for the enjoyment and education of the public.
The core of its collection of more than 600 complete costumes and thousands more pieces of hand-woven textiles, lace, velvets, cottons, and leather articles was the inspiration of Bessie Kirkland Johnson, a U.S. expatriate in the 1930s. Johnson’s Pan American Round Table (PART) group, like other such women’s round tables that had flourished since the origin of the pan-American movement in the 1910s, sought to share harmony and appreciate diverse cultures among nations of the western hemisphere.
Today the Costumes of the Americas Museum brings together one of the finest costume assemblages in the Western Hemisphere, representing twenty-one countries. Exhibits and panels identify the country of origin and interpret each indigenous costume.
Among many points of pride, the museum’s inventory, spanning seventy years of collecting, contains the charro outfit for the director of the first annual Charro Days held in Brownsville in 1938. Each costume and each piece are carefully catalogued and preserved and cared for by a museum administrator and a volunteer board with a passion for the city’s culture and history and the special community events that define the City of Brownsville.
With a lifelong interest in Latin American textiles, Carmen Lita Pashos has been a member of the Pan American Round Table since 1964 and served as the museum’s director and costume chairman. “I enjoy helping educate our community on the interesting histories behind the wonderful traditional textiles and costumes of all the Americas,” said Pashos, “and I am pleased to help preserve their cultural value for future generations.”
Part of that mission also includes guided tours, narrated costume revues, and educational presentations.
This museum’s expression of tex- tiles in a cultural and historical context is breathtaking. Museum board chair and volunteer Norma McKnight has favorites—those in the Guatemala and Honduras collections for their “intensity of color,” she says. This year’s exhibit, “The Pan American Union; A Showcase of National Treasures in Textiles,” draws visitors into the gallery to take in a brilliantly hued array.
The world’s oldest international organization representing a region of the world, the Pan American Union was formed from the First International Conference of American States, in 1890. The twenty-one original mem- ber countries were all located in the Western Hemisphere; all were former European colonies; and all had fought for and won their independence. They promoted commercial cooperation, and arbitration as alternatives to war.
Currently, costumes of the original Pan American Union countries are on display beneath their flags in the museum’s gallery. The array of garments reflects a history of vibrant colors, painstakingly created patterns of beads and threadwork, and rich textures.
Located in the Mitte Cultural District, the Costumes of the Americas Museum shares a building with the Children’s Museum of Brownsville. Self-guided and narrated tours are available.