The executive director of the Neill-Cochran House Museum, Rowena Houghton Dasch, reflects on sharing the stories of Austin’s history and helming a 60-year-old startup.
By Rowena Houghton Dasch, Photo by Taylor Prinsen
Some days, it remains a surprise to me that I live here in Austin and that I have devoted my career to telling Austin’s stories. I come by it honestly; I’m a seventh-generation Texan. And I definitely bleed orange. (Almost everyone in my family has been a Longhorn at some point.)
Still, I’m from Houston and I’d never spent much time in Austin before arriving in 2000 to join the graduate art-history program at the University of Texas. I’d gone to college and lived on the East Coast and gotten engaged to a guy from Maryland. Surely, we’d leave. Surely, one day, I’d end up working for an art museum back East.
But Austin lured us in. The pleasant winters with no snow to plough, the lake running through town, the informality, the friendliness all conspired to keep us here. And then the Texan in me latched on to the history, to the absurdity of Austin’s founding. Imagine there’s nothing west of Bastrop, Texas. There are trails but really no roads. There is no navigable river. And yet, Austin was founded to be the capital. The stories tell themselves, and I found myself lucky enough to be in a position to share them.
I’ve been the executive director of the 1856 Neill-Cochran House Museum for more than five years, and pretty quickly, it became clear that we were in a unique position to tell Austin’s stories. The problem was: Who would hear them? We sometimes refer to ourselves as a 60-year-old startup. The museum first opened in 1962, but we have had professional staff for fewer than 15 years. And back when I became the executive director, we sometimes felt like we were totally invisible. I can’t possibly keep track of the number of times I’ve heard, “I’ve lived here for 30 years and I never knew this place existed,” and, “When I was a student at UT, I lived a block from here, but I never knew this was a museum.”
Throughout the years, we assembled a small but mighty team. We reflect many of the faces of Austin—straight, LGBTQ, African American, female, male, millennial, baby boomer—and we have devoted ourselves to telling as many different narratives as our site can reflect. We’ve expanded programming, are recruiting community stakeholders and we’re finally making inroads toward increased visibility.
I think sometimes we overlook small sites, that we underplay their significance in the life of a community and in the preservation of community identity. Historic sites ground us in time, and they help us to understand what kind of community we are joining. I also don’t think we think much about the physical footprint of cities, the way streets are laid out, why certain areas are residential or commercial, why we find parks in the places we do. But those decisions drive the way we live and, in many ways, control our choices and movements, even if (and perhaps especially if) we don’t recognize their power.
We all know Austin is exploding in growth, with hundreds of people relocating to the city each week.
There are lots of conversations to be had about what kind of city we want Austin to be in the future. But to have those conversations, we have to understand the city’s past in order to have a sense of self as we move forward. It’s a privilege to be able to be a part of those conversations.