Museums

• Ron Good brings the Arabia Steamboat Museum to my attention. This sounds fascinating and worth a visit if you’re ever in Kansas City:

The Steamboat Arabia was built in West Brownsville, PA at the boat-yard of John S. Pringle in 1853.  At 171 feet long and capable of carrying 222 tons of cargo, she was considered an average-sized packet boat.  The 28-foot-tall paddlewheels could push the steamboat upstream at a speed of over 5 miles per hour.  Being a side-wheeler (having one paddlewheel on each side, rather than just one on the back) made it easier to maneuver around hazards like sandbars and snags… In her heyday, the Arabia was considered a dependable vessel and soon gained a reputation for speed, safety and comfort….

The Arabia traveled the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers for about two years until she was purchased for $20,000 by Captain John Shaw of St. Charles, Missouri in February of 1855.  Her first trip on the Missouri River took her to Ft. Pierre, South Dakota with 109 soldiers from Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas….

The most treacherous of the many river hazards were fallen trees lying hidden from sight just under the river’s surface.  These “snags” crippled and sank hundreds of steamboats, some even on their first trip up the river.  Of the estimated 400 steamboats lost to the river, about 300 were “snagged.”  The Arabia was one of those victims. [On September 5, 1856,] the steamer’s thick, oak hull was pierced by the end of a lethal snag.  The impact was tremendous, catapulting the bow from the water and throwing many of the shaken passengers to the floor.  As the Arabia’s timbers gave way, the log was thrust into the heart of the boat.  Water poured through the gaping hole, and the Arabia began quickly sinking.

Within minutes, much of the boat and virtually all 200 tons of precious frontier cargo lay at the bottom of the Missouri River…

All aboard were saved except for a solitary, forgotten mule that remained behind, tied to a piece of sawmill equipment on the deck.  The river bottom was soft, and the boat and cargo sank quickly into the mud and silt.  The next morning, only the smokestacks and the top of the pilothouse remained visible.  Even these disappeared in a few days, swept away by the tremendous force of the river.

Notorious for its shifting channel, the Missouri River cut a new path and moved east, abandoning the spot where the Arabia sank.  By the twentieth century, the steamboat was lying deep beneath a Kansas farm field.   Rumored to be filled with whiskey and gold when it sank, the Arabia drew the attention of treasure hunters and failed salvage attempts for many years.

Using a metal detector, weathered maps, and old newspaper clippings to guide the search, David Hawley located the wreck in July 1987.   Years of erosion and shifting sand left the lost paddleboat 45 feet underground and a half-mile from the present channel of the Missouri River.

David, along with his father Bob, brother Greg, and family friends Jerry Mackey and David Luttrell, would soon return to the farm and begin an adventure consuming the next 20 years.  The excavation resulted in the discovery of the largest collection of pre-Civil War artifacts in the world.

The Hawleys originally intended to sell these items but they quickly realized their historic value, and so opened the museum instead.

Some thoughts on improving historic house museums, courtesy Gene Harmon:

Picture in your head a historic house museum that you have visited.

Did you picture Mt. Vernon or Monticello? How about the historic house that you grew up down the road from? Did images of antiques and display cases flash through your mind, or was it the velvet rope barriers, musty smell, creaky floorboards, and dusty signs? I bet a majority of these things popped into your head because that’s what many people remember after they leave a historic house museum. I know that I have! The historical value of the museum is short term, but the memory of a musty old home you visited once as a kid will last you a lifetime. But it doesn’t have to be this way!

When historic house museums started popping up in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries their purpose was to educate immigrants about “American values and patriotic duties.” As the years went by and the surrounding communities changed, the museums stayed the same. As a result, historic house museums have been experiencing a steady decline in visitors and funding over the years. However, people like Franklin D. Vagnone and Deborah Ryan are on a mission to revive interest and relevance in these museums.

Vagnone, the executive director of New York City’s Historic House Trust and co-author of Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums (published in October 2015), explained a core issue pertaining to historic house museums’ decline through the years: too many of them are offering a “beige experience,” he told interviewer Carol Bossert on September 18, 2015. Many museums are too similar in presentation, and the public possess a “you’ve-seen-one-you’ve-seen-them-all” mentality towards the museums. “One of the problems with house museums is you keep kind of circling back to the same people who come . . . Eventually they are going to die and there’s going to be no one coming to your parties,” Vagnone stated.

Vagnone’s co-author, Deborah Ryan, explained in the same interview with Vagnone and Bossert that, “Historic house museums tend to be inward focusing particularly on their collections, and what we have suggested is that the houses need to turn themselves inside-out. So, rather than expecting people to come to them, they need to make the community aware of who they are and make the community feel welcome.” Ryan also advised that historic house museums need to grow into “place-making” because places hold meaning for people. Museums should not just be “biometric space” that contain objects. Museums are places where activities happen; where families do things together, watch demonstrations, and get involved.

Some of the most memorable house museums that I have seen let me participate in the house’s history; a lot of the historical participation that I have taken part in was not even traditionally exciting scenarios. I love feeling included in the household and in the everyday rituals that would normally take place, like milking a cow, making soap, stoking the fireplace, or baking bread. I love learning about the clothing people in certain eras wore and how they would make or acquire these clothes. The little routines like that are what have stuck like glue in my mind.

Read the whole thing.

• A museum in Tallahassee, Florida is devoted to the art of Jack T. Chick, the author of some 250 religious tracts. You’ve probably discovered some of these left in public places, like the classic “This Was Your Life” or “Bad Bob!”

Whether you love him or hate him, you gotta respect Chick for sticking to his guns. Since 1961 (over half a century!), he’s cranked out tract after tract to help sinners “see the light.” He’s written over 250 different tracts, with more than 900,000,000* distributed worldwide (in over 100 different languages)! His influence is so vast that entire nations have passed special laws banning his comics. Even as Political Correctness reigns supreme, Chick seems unafraid to take on the sacred cows. He steadfastly exposes a conspiracy of Catholics, Masons, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, New Agers, Rock & Rollers, and any other group the devil might use to damn your soul. Chick also offends Jews and Muslims with previews of their fiery futures in hell (but only because he wants to save them). The more taboo a topic, the more likely you’ll see it covered in a Chick tract!

We don’t condemn Chick for his controversial nature. We celebrate it! It’s just one of his unique characteristics. Besides, he’s an Artist. They’re supposed to be provocative. (If he drew Christ in a Bowl of Urine, many of his critics would love him.)

Our goal is to SALUTE this dedicated demagogue and immortalize his work by assembling a complete library for fans and scholars to marvel at JACK T. CHICK!

According to Wikipedia, Chick was most likely influenced by the format (but not the content!) of Tijuana Bibles, of whose existence I was unaware.