816 North Opinion

A museum inside a museum

The Steamboat Arabia Museum holds more than artifacts from the sunken river boat. It holds the memories of families who have visited and it’s sparked the imaginations of the many school children who have traveled there on field trips.
The Steamboat Arabia Museum holds more than artifacts from the sunken river boat. It holds the memories of families who have visited and it’s sparked the imaginations of the many school children who have traveled there on field trips. File photo

“Steamboat Arabia? Victorian Hair Museum? Psychiatric Museum?” I tossed out my top picks even though I didn’t get a vote.

“I’m thinking Arabia.” Bekah said confidently.

Truth be told, that was my No. 3 choice, but I was only going along for the ride while she researched a class assignment.

The challenge: Connect a local museum to women’s history. The paper and presentation weren’t due for a while but, unlike her mother, Bekah likes to get started early; she doesn’t appreciate the motivational power of a looming deadline — the method I used in college.

(And that I use now. College really does prepare us for life.)

The Steamboat Arabia is a fine museum that’s on my list of favorite places for out-of-town visitors. I’ve been many times but maybe viewing the museum through the filter of her assignment would freshen the experience.

It was fresh experience, but that wasn’t why.

We drove to the River Market via the same route I’ve always used; parked in the same lot I’ve always parked in; walked through the same Farmer’s Market area and museum doors I’ve always used. It was Steamboat Arabia Museum business as usual as we headed for the gift shop to get our tickets.

Just like every time she’s walked into any gift shop since she learned to read, Bekah headed to a spinning-rack of personalized key fobs looking for one with her name.

Just like always, she didn’t find one.

“Only Rebekah with a C,” she said. Just like always.

The tour began and we followed a backward-walking guide down a long, cement ramp and heard the story of the Arabia, its sinking in 1856, and the changing path of the Missouri River that led to her discovery in a Kansas field in 1988.

Just like always.

“We came here when you guys were really little,” I told Bekah. “Luke tore down this ramp, I barely caught him.”

We stopped at the large, wooden steamboat stern to learn how it was unearthed, moved and preserved. “Your grandfather liked this part, he was all about ships and woodwork.”

When the lights went off in the small theater for a short documentary, I leaned over to her, “Your brother was so afraid of the dark, I didn’t see this film for several years.”

Finally left to meander at our own pace, the artifact displays weren’t new to me at all. “Grandma M’am liked these buttons, so did you when you were little.”

“They’re still cool, Mom,” she said and then headed-off to discover alone and take notes; my self-guided tour turned internal:

There’s a cognac label my friend, Pierre, took a picture of for his wife because it reminded him of their honeymoon.

Those pre-fab building materials led me to later learn about Sears Kit Houses of the early 1900s.

See that Do Not Touch sign? Toddler Noah couldn’t read it and loudly fought to lay his hands on the log that sank the ship.

I saw myself walking the replica deck with my parents and talking about how the floorboards reminded us of the house I grew up in; I remembered I posed with my father by the mural at the stern.

A photo album flipped through my mind of all the pictures I had taken with people I care about standing in front of the part of the hull that began and ended each trip through the museum.

“Thanks for coming with me, Mom. I know you’ve been before; hope you weren’t bored.”

I smiled. I wasn’t bored at all, I had a museum of memories to entertain me.

Like never before.

Susan Vollenweider lives in Smithville. To read more of her writing or to listen to the women’s history podcast that she co-hosts visit www.thehistorychicks.com or www.susanvollenweider.com

Leila’s Hair Museum is at 1333 S Noland Roa, Independence; The Glore Psychiatric Museum is at 3408 Frederick Ave., St. Joseph, and The Steamboat Arabia Museum is located in the River Market in Kansas City.

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