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Museum opens new 'La Belle' exhibit (w/video)

By Gabriella Canales
April 18, 2017 at 10:27 p.m.
Updated April 19, 2017 at midnight

An outline of La Belle is displayed outside of the Museum of the Coastal Bend. More than 300 people sailed with Robert de La Salle to explore the Gulf Coast in 1685.

An outline of La Belle is displayed outside of the Museum of the Coastal Bend. More than 300 people sailed with Robert de La Salle to explore the Gulf Coast in 1685.   Ana Ramirez for The Victoria Advocate

As Madison Chandler held her makeshift boat of egg carton and pipe cleaners in her palm, she couldn't help but think that the outline of the La Belle was just as small.

"It's little," Madison, 10, said as her eyes scanned the Museum of the Coastal Bend's front veranda. "History is important because it teaches you about the past."

Cramped, confined, constricted: These words describe the La Belle Interpretive Exhibit, a large-scale outline of the La Belle's deck.

About 50 people experienced the conditions endured by passengers at the museum's grand opening Tuesday with an opportunity to stand inside the outline.

In 1684, the French explorer Robert de La Salle constructed La Belle, a small vessel never intended for an ocean crossing, when his cargo exceeded the three-ship allotment for his expedition.

The exhibit is funded by a DOW Seadrift Operations Community Gives Grant.

After expanding in 2014, the Museum of the Coastal Bend featured the artifacts from the La Belle shipwreck excavation, said Sue Prudhomme, museum director.

"A large part of the story line is European exploration and coloization attempts of the coastal bend," Prudhomme said.

The outdoor exhibit expands the history coursing through the museum's walls.

"It gives our viewers an idea of how small that vessel was that crossed the Atlantic Ocean and made the trip from France to the Matagorda Bay," she said.

The ship's length is 61 feet and it is about 16 feet, 7 inches wide.

Subjects can be observed and studied in a variety of ways, she said.

"Since the excavation of the (La) Belle in the 1990s, those artifacts have been examined over and over, and more historical documents have come to light," she said.

For many years, the length of the ship was published as a smaller measurement.

Experts discovered the measurements were recorded in French feet, and it was never converted to the modern measurement system.

"We are constantly expanding as we receive new information about the stories that we have on exhibit," she said. "It feels really exciting to be able to offer another educational enrichment opportunity for the community."

Guests now have a ship to guide them as they journey through the museum's artifacts that document the tragic story of its wreck.

"Some visitors learn best through reading, some learn best through hands-on activities and some learn best through seeing," she said. "This exhibit gives our visitors another way to learn that information."


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