Although not an official exhibition, the Grand Lobby contains several notable features representing the legacy of the region. The architecture of the Grand Lobby, and the museum overall, echoes Spanish Colonial Revival, a style popular in the early 20th century, particularly in the lower Rio Grande Valley. The chandelier and archways contain numerous representations of South Texas animals and plants magnificently hand-crafted in metal. The metal railings mounted in recessed arches at the second floor level came from the 1910 Hidalgo County Courthouse in Edinburg. Ornamental tiles recall the heritage of Spain and Mexico, and the doors and admission counters are crafted of mesquite, the native tree that has become a symbol of South Texas.
Upstairs begins the museum’s premier exhibition, Rio Grande Legacy. Told in two parts, River Frontier and River Highway, the story of the region unfolds with unique artifacts and state-of-the art multimedia. Visitors encounter prehistoric fossils, ancient tools, Spanish colonial treasure, battlefield relics, and artifacts from the region’s heydays as a steamboat route and, later, a cattle kingdom. Sounds and music from the region create an immersive experience, and visitors walking aboard the replica bow of a steamboat enjoy a film in the theater located inside.
Continuing downstairs, visitors follow a corridor to River Crossroads, the final section of Rio Grande Legacy. Entering through a replica train station, visitors to this gallery learn about the century that transformed the region. Artifacts from the museum collection illustrate the arrival of railroads and irrigated agriculture, town-building, wars of the twentieth century, and the booming post-war years. As in the upstairs gallery, visitors are encompassed by sounds of the century, from Mexican corridos (ballads) to the clatter of a telegraph. This gallery’s theater, inside a replica packing shed, offers two vintage films on the region.
Leaving the main building, visitors cross a lovely courtyard to the 1910 Old Jail, whose galleries offer changing exhibitions. The second floor of the Old Jail also holds a permanent exhibition in honor of Marine Sergeant Alfredo ‘Freddy’ Gonzalez of Edinburg. Gonzalez was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his heroic service in Vietnam.
Exiting from the Old Jail, visitors enjoy the Will Looney Legacy Park. The park features a beautiful sculpture, A Texas Legacy, by Deborah Copenhaver Fellows; a windmill and tank; a leña (rustic log) fence; a sundial; a water pump; a winding path studded with native animal tracks; and numerous native plants.