Apr 5, 2015

A Visit to La Belle...

The Bullock Museum -- Home of La Belle
Last November, I wrote about Mary Ann's visit to Texas and my fascination with the wreck of RenĂ©-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle's ship, La Belle.  Mary Ann and I visited several museums that exhibited La Belle artifacts.  The ship, the last of four that started out from France in 1684 as part of La Salle's expedition to find the mouth of the Mississippi, sank in a storm in 1686 in Matagorda Bay on the Texas coast.  The wreck was discovered in the 1990's and is now being reconstructed at the Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin.  Since I was going to be spending the weekend of 21-22 March in Texas, I decided to drive to Austin to see the reconstruction effort as well as some of the artifacts on display.  My friend and colleague Jerry Hendrix was planning to be alone for the weekend (his Better Half was in Huntsville tending to a sick grandbaby), so he decided to join me for the adventure.

I had gotten tickets in advance for both the museum and for a film that complements the La Belle exhibit.  We drove to Austin on a dreary, rainy morning, stopping for a great breakfast at a truck stop near Pleasanton, Texas.  We arrived in Austin and proceeded to the parking garage, which is adjacent to the museum.

The building is impressive (as are many things in Texas).  The $80M building was completed in 2001.  It is named after former Texas Lieutenant Governor Bob Bullock, who championed its creation.

Jerry and I first proceeded to the film, entitled "Shipwrecked" and shown in the Texas Spirit Theater.  This is a modestly-sized theater that I would describe as "total immersion."  It has three screens that surround you in front and the seats are motion-capable.  At one point in the film, during a storm at sea, I felt splashes of water!  The film, allegedly based on fact, tells the story of a young boy who is part of La Salle's ill-fated adventure, survives the voyage and loss of his ship, and is captured and adopted by the Karankawa Indians, who populated the Texas coast in the 1600's.  He eventually makes his way into the hands of Spanish explorers, to whom he tells his remarkable survival story.  It is a short film, about one-half hour long, but very nicely produced.

The hull of La Belle undergoing preservation
"Freeze Drying" at Texas A&M University

We proceeded to the current display of La Belle and her artifacts.  This is an unusual exhibit because the public is able to witness the reconstruction of the hull, over 600 pieces that survive, as it takes place within the museum.  The pieces that were retrieved from the bottom of Matagorda Bay have been conserved with a special polyethylene glycol technique that preserves the wood and enables it to be displayed with no further degradation.  

When we arrived, one of the museum workers (many of whom are faculty and students from Texas A&M University's marine archeology department) was working on the hull.  When the reconstruction is completed, the assembled hull will be moved to an adjacent 3-story high gallery, where the remainder of the hull shape and masts will be mocked up to illustrate the overall size and shape of the ship.  The overall effect should be incredible.  And the public will be able to walk through the ship, as a glass "deck" will reside over the preserved portion of the original hull.  The artists' renderings give us an idea of the final setting:

The final display will allow visitors to "enter" the hull on a
transparent floor above the remaining hull timbers.

The artifacts on display were carefully assembled in well-labeled acrylic display cases arranged for convenient examination by the public.  There were nearly 2,000,000 artifacts found in La Belle's wreckage, so the items are quite varied, ranging from ceramics and glass objects to weapons, cookware, navigational instruments, shipboard hardware, jewelry and decorative items.  I was amazed that even some organic objects survived 300 years underwater.  There was a very recognizable boot and some fragments of cloth on display.

In front of the area in which the hull was being reconstructed, a large display cabinet contained one of the spectacular La Belle models that have been constructed by Mr. Glenn P. Grieco of the Nautical Archeology Department at Texas A&M University.  Mary Ann and I had seen another of his models on display at the Texas Maritime Museum in Rockport, Texas.  These models are beyond spectacular!

I highly recommend a visit to Austin to see this amazing exhibit.  If you can't visit, get one of the fine books that are available describing the expedition, the horrible outcome (for the French), and the remarkable discovery and salvage operation.  By the way, everything in the exhibit is labelled "Property of the Government of France."  Texas and France agreed to legal terms that let Texas be the permanent caretakers of this French treasure.  Under maritime law, because King Louis only "loaned" La Salle his ships, they remained the property of the French Government.  Had the king sold them to La Salle, Texas would have had salvage rights.  Yet here is La Belle on display in Texas rather than in some French museum.  I guess possession really is 9/10 of the law!