Museum director believes the future is in our history
Joan Marshall, director of The Bryan Museum in Galveston, grew up in Fort Worth, a great city for museums, she said.
“I spent a lot of time visiting museums there, and I think that was what contributed to my interest in the arts,” Marshall said.
Marshall started out her college career with an interest in music. She earned a scholarship to Texas Christian University to study as a percussionist. But she decided the life of a musician was too unstable, she said. She changed course and headed to the University of Texas at Austin to study economics and history. She then earned a Master of Business Administration degree there.
After college, she moved to Houston and worked in real estate and banking for a few years. Then, when she was in her late 20s, she had a heart-to-heart talk with her father, she said. She decided to quit her job and move to West Berlin, she said.
“It was during the months I spent there that I decided I wanted to go back to grad school to study art history,” Marshall said. “I’ve never regretted my decision to follow my passion.”
Her first job after graduating was at the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington, D.C. From there, she held positions at the Bullock Texas State History Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles among others.
She moved to Galveston earlier this year.
Marshall was drawn to The Bryan Museum for three reasons: J.P. Bryan’s nationally recognized collection of 70,000 pieces of American West and Texas artifacts and because she considers Bryan, a retired Houston oilman, to be a free thinker, she said.
“J.P. was an art history major before he studied law and before he got into business,” Marshall said.
The third reason is Galveston, she said.
“Galveston is a microcosm of the American West,” Marshall said. “It played a role in everything, from Cabeza de Vaca to Jean Laffite to the Texas Navy to the Civil War, and even immigration at Pelican Island.”
Marshall’s ancestors came to Texas from Switzerland through Pelican Island, she said.
She also believes Galveston has a tremendous opportunity for heritage tourism, she said. Heritage tourism is defined by the National Trust for Historic Preservation in the United States as traveling to visit places, artifacts and activities that authentically represent the stories of the past.
Marshall has strong feelings about the importance of history’s role in society and she doesn’t believe museums are frilly, she said. Rather, she sees museums as central to the education system, she said.
“Museums embody the things we value, and that’s why regimes often try to rewrite history — it represents shared values,” she said. “History is about rooting yourself in a community. It’s a reflection of the questions that help you focus on the future. Americans focus on the future, and we don’t think history is important to study. There needs to be a balance in liberal arts and technological studies. Liberal arts allow you to fully participate in civic life.”
Marshall’s goal for the museum is to raise its profile and draw more visitors. The collection is one of the finest of its kind in the country, and she wants people, whether they’re visiting the island to go on cruises, or from Houston and across the state, to see the collection, she said.
“I feel transported by the objects in a museum, and I hope our visitors do, too,” she said.