By Lynn Ashby 15 May 2017
THE MUSEUM — Here’s a picture with an inscription: “I am happy to acknowledge this to be the only correct lithograph that has been taken of me. David Crockett.” We must assume all the others were photoshopped. A newspaper ad: “As these Servants sold for no fault, it would be very desirable to sell them in families.” Now there’s a kindly slave owner. “Between 60,000 and 70,000 Texans served in the Confederate Army. Of these between 20 to 25 percent lost their lives; more than half from disease.” In my own family’s case the disease was lead poisoning – fired from a Yankee rifle.
This is the Bryan Museum in Galveston, and the next time you head for the beach, set aside some time to come here, for this is one great gathering of Texana, even if you don’t like museums. The entire collection consists of approximately 70,000 items, which include 20,000 rare books; more than 30,000 documents in Spanish, German, French, and English; three dozen saddles; over 250 antique firearms; several hundred spurs; a large collection of fine art, religious art, folk art, and portraits; rare maps and artifacts, such as cowboy chaps; Indian stone tools and arrowheads; and a Spanish mission bell. They are not all on display, but you get the picture.
I like museums, especially those that don’t overwhelm me. You walk into the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and stare at a room full of Rembrandts, and I just can’t absorb all of them. Then there are the smaller collections like the one in Punta Arenas on the southern tip of Chile, which included a photo of two Chilean soldiers proudly smiling while standing over the body of a dead Indian they had just shot. Yuk. The Bryan Museum is just the right size — for several visits. This is my second and I spy all sorts of things I missed before. First a bit of background to help you understand why this is here, who is Bryan and what about an orphanage. The Bryan family goes back to the early days of Texas – Emily Austin Bryan Perry, Stephen F. Austin’s sister, is a direct ancestor. More recently, James Perry Bryan, Sr., was a prolific collector who had amassed a large collection of Texas maps, family documents, and artifacts. He sold his collection to the University of Texas in 1966. His son, J. P. Bryan, Jr., began collecting at around age 10, when he acquired his first two pieces – a revolver and a Four-Barrel Derringer. Both firearms still reside in the collection today. As a student at UT, Bryan the Younger got into the Texana book publishing biz, then began his own collection from books to Texas and Southwest artifacts to art to other stuff.
In 1981, Bryan started an energy company, and moved his collection into the company’s offices. Over the next 32 years, the collection continued to expand until it covered more than 25,000 square feet of the office. He needed more space, and probably got tired of hearing: “Uh, Boss, it’s about all those scalps in the break room.” Bryan and his wife, Mary Jon, discovered this building, the old Galveston Orphans Home, which had been abandoned. (The orphanage itself has a great story which involves the Dealey family, the Dallas Morning News and the namesake of Dealey Plaza of JFK fame, but that’s another story.) The restoration took a while. I had read about the museum and kept going by to see if it had opened. More work, no doubt a lot more money, and more collections: Bryan once bought nearly 500 pairs of spurs and also added over 3,500 documents related to Galveston’s history. It took so long for the Bryans to get everything just right, those old boots, guns and maps had originally been purchased at Wal-Mart. Just kidding, it was Sam’s.
The Bryan Museum opened in June 2015, which may make it Texas’ newest collection, at 1315 21st Street. You can just drive up and park at the front curb for free, however, the museum costs. Check the hours and days it’s open. (11 to 4, closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays, not your usual 9-to-5.) Walk in and you’d think you were in one of those old Galveston mansions with dark wooden paneling and staircase, high ceilings. For an orphanage, it’s not like where Oliver Twist asked for another bowl of gruel. Actually, it looks like something the Moodys would have given the Sealys for a Christmas present. Incidentally, the grounds are real spiffy, and a great place for weddings between hurricanes.
Start your tour chronologically, ancient spear carriers, then the Spanish, and so on. You might learn something: “Missouri and Texas hosted the most U.S. cavalry units because Comanches and Kiowas and others proved themselves the most trouble.” I didn’t know the Show Me State had massive Indian problems, did you? Except for the Kansas City Chiefs, of course. The 100-dollar Confederate bill features a small picture of slaves out in the fields chopping cotton, just in case Johnny Reb forgot what he was fighting for. A receipt for tobacco, powder, etc. for $450 signed on Feb 20, 1836, by “W. Barret Travis.” A diorama with 1,200 hand-painted soldiers, showing the Battle of San Jacinto. An exhibit of the black cowboy. It’s not just a man thing. There are exhibits of women’s dresses, cowgirls and this: Nancy Cooper Russell’s wedding ring was a small golden saddle. Next room shows saddles, swords and I haven’t seen so many guns since a Trump rally. We go right up to modern times, although I find the old stuff more fascinating. Upstairs are thousands of books, and a lot of Texas and Southwest art. When word gets around, these rooms will be filled with scholars poring over maps and guns, trying to figure out who shot J.R. I have absorbed about all I can for this visit, so I need to come back someday soon – so should you.
Ashby collects at email@example.com