Many people in Austin County know Bryan McAuley as the guy who runs the new museum at San Felipe de Austin State Historic Site.
He’s much more than just a figurehead at the site and his journey to get there has been anything but a direct route. The native of Brazoria County grew up in Angleton where he graduated high school in 1987. In school, he worked for the student newspaper, performed in the band and played baseball.
“I graduated in the top 10 percent of my class and went on to the University of Houston briefly and then graduated from the University of Texas,” he said.
McAuley, who turns 50 in August, took a variety of subjects in school and started on a path far from the world of museums.
“My focus in school was government/political science, history and archeology, and … Latin,” he said. “I went to college assuming I was going to work in some kind of journalism or public affairs. I briefly thought I might pursue something in politics, either running for office or working for an officeholder, and did eventually do that, briefly, and no criticism to any of those officeholders but I didn’t find that as much fun as I thought it would be.”
Interestingly, one of his schoolmates is Dennis Bonnen, the current Texas Speaker of the House.
Before entering college, McAuley received a lot of career advice from family and friends.
“I had family members say you should study museums and stuff, you should go work in a museum,” he said. “And while I didn’t know a lot at 18, 19, and 20, I did notice that nobody in Texas was making any money working in museums… so that didn’t seem like an opportunity that I should try to pursue.”
After graduating from Texas in 1991, McAuley spent that summer at a field school in Belize doing Mayan archeology.
“I was really trying to decide if that was going to be a serious pursuit as a career or not,” he said, adding that it wasn’t.
Instead, he returned to Austin to pursue his master’s degree and to marry Amanda, his high school sweetheart, who also went to the University of Texas. They married during the Christmas break between semesters in 1991. McAuley got his master’s in sociology from what is now Texas State University. Thinking he would go into teaching he instead went into politics.
“Hired on at Texas Attorney General’s Office of Dan Morales,” he said.
He did public relations in the office for four years, first under Morales and later under John Cornyn, who is now a senator.
During that time two daughters were born to the McAuleys. Zoe was born in 1996 and Piper in 1998.
Eventually, he landed a grant-fund job with Texas Historical Commission working with the Heritage Trails Program in the Independence Trail Region.
“My role was to be a liaison to small museums and destination marketing organizations like chambers of commerce and convention and visitors bureaus in the region and help them think about how to promote themselves, how to link themselves regionally to bigger stories and that sort of thing,” he said. “What I learned pretty quickly is that it became almost an every-week, every-day job interview experience. I’d go to these small towns and someone would go ‘we need somebody like you to come work at our museum. We need somebody like you to … whatever.’”
Again, he didn’t see a future working in a museum.
“I was mostly seen as a marketing, public affairs, communications kind of talent at that time,” he said.
During this time he got to know Michael Moore, who was the executive director of the Fort Bend County Museum Association (now the Fort Bend History Association). He wanted McAuley to work in a communications and marketing role.
“I met Bryan when he was the Independence Trail coordinator and I was at the Fort Bend Museum and George Ranch Historical Park and I thought they’d be a great partner in marketing Texas history,” Moore said. “I started off thinking I wanted to help the program but then I got to know Bryan a little better and I thought ‘you know, I really think I’d like to hire him’ and so after some time we talked about bringing him to the Fort Bend Museum and he joined on the marketing staff.”
“Mostly I was impressed by the ambitiousness of that association, they had a lot of moving parts and seemed to be doing a lot of things that a lot of small museums – small town and county museums – weren’t able to do in terms of scale and scope,” McAuley said. “Certainly, the operation of the George Ranch Historical Park was part of that.”
During his years in Fort Bend, McAuley spent most of his time working at George Ranch Historical Park doing a lot of marketing and promotion. Moore saw more in McAuley the longer they worked together.
“I thought he’s got a really great program mind, too, and I kind of helped nudge him, push him, ask him, encourage him to move toward the program side,” he said.
McAuley stayed on until 2001.
“One of the last projects that I worked on with then-director Candy Jones was essentially an archeological salvage of the Sugar Land Imperial plant. We were working with the city. They had acquired the property for the development that was being imagined at that time from Imperial Sugar … to go in and see what could be taken out of the plant facility that might help support a future museum, which of course is currently in the works,” he said.
At that time he saw that the state Legislature was about to move some historic properties from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to the Texas Historical Commission.
“I knew based on the list of sites that were going to be transferred that I lived relatively close to the Levi Jorden Plantation in Brazoria County and to the San Felipe de Austin State Historic Site in Austin County,” he said. “So I felt like there might be an opportunity for me to work for one of those and both of them were going to be queued up for some significant development.”
He ended up getting hired for both.
“I remember telling my then-boss you gave me the best two jobs you have, I got both of them. From her perspective, they only had to pay me for one.”
By 2009 McAuley was asked to pick one of the sites to work with.
“My background really spoke to the San Felipe story. I had worked at the George Ranch, I knew a lot about this Austin Colony stuff, I’d worked with the Independence Trail program, so I knew all the peripheral partners that are connected to that… and so it worked out well,” he said.
At the time he officed in a tiny room in the Josey Store, which served as a museum and gift shop. He spent the next few years working with the teams that planned and fundraised for the new museum, which was to be built on property across FM 1458. That brought him back around to his former boss, Michael Moore.
“It was a fun full circle for me in the sense that Michael Moore, who invited me into this field, had also been asked to come on board with us as a consultant on exhibit design work, so it was a chance for he and I to kind of partner together again from my early museum career and work with someone who certainly has much more knowledge than anyone I know specifically about the town of San Felipe,” McAuley said. “He had put a lot of his energies both as a director in Fort Bend County and then subsequently after his retirement into studying San Felipe. It’s a real passion of his, and so I’m privileged to stand on his shoulders in terms of research and things he’s done to help us improve the site.”
Once the plan was in place, construction could finally start.
“It took us roughly two and a half years once we could see the funding vision to get the museum built architecturally and about six more months to install the exhibits,” McAuley said. “I’m proud to see there are a handful of things that I really see as my fingerprint, my footprint, in some of the exhibit planning.
“It’s very much a team process and I don’t want to dismiss any of my colleagues who are collaborative in this effort because we all sat at tables and thought about why things would work and why they wouldn’t but specifically I was a real champion for a historic cabin that we took on donation and preserved and use in the space that our visitors respond to very well,” he said.
“I’m very pleased that Bryan’s at San Felipe de Austin,” Moore said. “I had dreams for that place going back decades and to have somebody of his caliber and his drive and interest and enthusiasm to be at the helm of it is just very gratifying to me.”
He credits McAuley with being able to balance two key aspects of museum management.
“I think the essence of Bryan is just that, he has a leg in the marketing world and leg in the program world and forms kind of a connective link, a connective tissue between the past and the present, between the story and the audience and I’ve just been so impressed by him, so pleased with his efforts to take the story and significance of the past and find ways to engage people,” he said.
As the museum enters its second year, McAuley said there are plans to have live archeology going on at least twice a year that people can observe. Additionally, they plan to build representative structures to show visitors what buildings I the town would have looked like before it was burned by fleeing residents during the Runaway Scrape in 1836.
In addition to a love of history, McAuley has a very personal tie to Stephen F. Austin, founder of San Felipe.
“By happenstance, I’m a third cousin seven times removed from Stephen F. Austin. We have a common ancestor closer to England than to Texas,” he said. “Every ancestor for me between that common ancestor and me is a male, except for my mother, so the Austin name comes all the way down and stops a generation before me.”
Moore said having the museum in place and McAuley in charge is a perfect combination.
“I couldn’t be more pleased than to have him there and to see this wonderful new museum that was a dream of so many of ours… It’s a place where people come to get enthused about the stories of the past,” Moore said.