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February 27, 2012

Star of the Republic celebrating Texas independence this weekend

Blinn College-run museum draws more than 30,000 visitors annually

Star  of the Republic Museum

When the Texas Legislature approved the creation of the Star of the Republic Museum in 1970, the brand-new institution wasn’t unlike the early years of Texas itself – plenty of open space with the vast potential for innovation.

The museum, located at Washington-on-the-Brazos State Historic Site and administered by Blinn College since it opened its doors, didn’t have a clearly defined mission when it was established. It was only after the museum was built in the unique configuration that makes it the only star-shaped museum in the world that the staff was tasked with finding items to exhibit.

“The museum was going to have something to do with this historic site and early Texas, but there wasn’t a clear focus,” said Houston McGaugh, the museum’s director since 1987. “Once they focused on that, then the collection slowly developed.”

Eventually, the museum found its niche telling the story of Texas’ years as an independent nation between 1836 and 1846. Its location at Washington-on-the-Brazos gave the museum the unique opportunity to tell that story, and the collection now features more than 8,000 items, including about 4,000 documents, 500 rare books and 300 maps.

The collection includes what is believed to be the oldest known Texas flag, as well as The Reading of the Texas Declaration of Independence, a painting by Charles and Fanny Normann that was commissioned for the Texas centennial in 1936. That painting has been on loan from the Fultz family in Navasota since the museum opened.

“There’s a copy of that painting in every Texas history text book that’s ever been printed,” McGaugh said.

The two-story museum includes an auditorium that seats 80 and exhibits documenting the Native Americans who first inhabited Texas, the natural resources that drew settlers to the territory, the Mexican-American War and features numerous showcases describing the daily life of average Texans in the era. It is the only accredited museum in the state devoted exclusively to collecting and interpreting pre-1850 Texas history and material culture.

This glimpse into Texas’ history allows us to better understand what it is that makes Texas – and Texans – unique. It’s a question that has been posed to McGaugh numerous times in his 24 years as the museum director.

“Here’s this family in South Carolina, and all of a sudden they see this article in the newspaper that says if you go to Texas, a family can get 4,400 acres free,” McGaugh said. “A lot of people would jump all over that, but you’re forgetting that it’s a foreign country, it’s a long distance to travel and to get there you’ve got to swear allegiance to Mexico and you’ve got to at least say that you’re Catholic.

“They would have to be very courageous and very adventurous.”

The museum offers about 30,000 visitors each year the opportunity to better understand that uniquely Texan spirit, including roughly 10,000 students passing through the museum doors each year. More than half are first-time visitors and about 15 percent hail from a foreign country.

“That blows my mind. I have no idea how they find us,” McGaugh said.

The museum’s location at the birthplace of Texas’ independence allows its guests to make a full day out of their visit. The museum is situated beside Independence Hall, which marks the site where the Texas Declaration of Independence was signed and the Republic of Texas was created, and the Barrington Living History Farm, where visitors can see what daily life was like for Texans during that era.

“You can come out here and spend four or five hours really easily and get a very immersive education in early Texas history,” McGaugh said.

To celebrate Texas Independence Day on Friday, the museum will debut its new exhibit, “A Slice of Life: Washington in the 19th Century.” The exhibit will focus on the people, businesses and events that influenced the fledgling village of Washington during the 1830s. Best known for the Convention of 1836 that declared Texas’ independence from Mexico, Washington was also a hub for medical practices, land offices, mercantile establishments, hotels and, of course, taverns. The exhibit will continue through December 31, 2012.

Independence Hall, the Star of the Republic and the Barrington Living History Farm will all waive their admission fees throughout the weekend as part of a two-day festival celebrating the 176th anniversary of the signing of the Texas Declaration of Independence. The festival lasts from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. both Saturday and Sunday, and admission is free. Re-enactors in period clothing and members of the Texas Army, along with skilled craftsmen and talented musicians, will fill the park and the Houston Area Blacksmithing Association will be at Barrington Farm doing demonstrations.