Monday, September 9, 2013

Amateurism and the Arabia

Another trove, this time in a cornfield in the Midwestern United States. Treasure hunters Bob Hawley and his sons consulted 19th c. maps and the manifest of a steamboat that sunk – with no casualties – in the Missouri River in 1856. They discovered the wreck just north of Kansas City in 1987, but it was no longer underwater due to meandering. In fact, the river's silt, which had buried the Arabia within weeks, preserved its contents in an ideal oxygen-free environment. The Hawleys realized what a haul they had when they began excavating the cargo:
  • 20,000 feet of lumber
  • 4,000 shoes and boots
  • 2 prefab homes, plus window glass, locks, and door knobs
  • a sawmill, its fixtures, and tools including axes, wood planes, and nails
  • pistols, rifles, and hundreds of pocket knives
  • thousands of assorted buttons and innumerable Indian trade beads
  • bolts of cloth
  • hundreds of beaver hats, pairs of pants, and dresses
  • 3,000 tallow candles and whale-oil lamps
  • pots, pans, muffin tins, and skillets
  • spiced pigs' feet, sardines, pie fillings, and pickles
  • kegs of ale, whiskey, and a case of Otard Dupuy & Co. cognac
  • castor oil, Barrell's Indian Liniment, and dozens of medicine bottles
  • luxury goods including perfumes, champagne, silk cloth, brandied cherries from France, and patterned porcelain tableware from England
Despite all their labor in bringing the items to the surface, the Hawleys realized they represented a virtual time capsule, so they decided rather than sell off their treasure, they would keep it together. While the U.S. curatorial and conservation establishment pooh-poohed their amateur efforts, they received advice from labs in Sweden, Canada, and the U.K. about how to process the objects they were keeping wet in huge tubs stored in caves and restaurant freezers. Rather than hiring museum design consultants, the family studied department store design to display the Arabia's goods (and her paddlewheel and boilers) in a museum that they built without any state or federal support. Welcome to the Steamboat Arabia Museum.

1 comment:

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