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A Sunken Time Capsule

Imagine enclosing the entire stock of a Target store in a giant time capsule and burying it for 150 years. You would have a complete mercantile record of our palates, pastimes, problems and priorities. That's the best analogy I can find for Kansas City's Arabia Steamboat Museum, which preserves the 200-ton cargo of a Missouri River steamship that sank in 1856.

Submerged in the river's silty bottom, the ship remained hidden until the 1980s, when a band of treasure hunters uncovered it in a cornfield. (The river's path had shifted.) They intended to sell the contents, but as they unearthed crate after crate, they realized that more value—both monetary and historical—lay in preserving the entire collection. And so the museum was born. The museum faces City Market, with a giant replica paddle wheel visible through the lobby window. Well-trained guides lead timed-entry tours ($14.50), vividly describing the history of steamships and the story of the Arabia. (Families with small kids should note that the talky portion of the tour lasts a while and includes a video.)

But then the guide releases the group into the exhibits to explore freely. My husband and I could have stayed all day. You see a chunk of the ship's oak hull, the log that rammed it, plus thousands of items that had been destined for frontier general stores: beads for trading with Native Americans, shiny doorknobs that promised luxury in new homes, boots in every size, plus large pieces of leather that cobblers would have used to make more. The quality of the preservation is unbelievable. There are unbroken sets of china, cork-topped bottles filled with still-green pickles and bundles of petrified candles. (Curious why it all looks so good? You can even chat with a preservationist working in an open lab.) Although many items sit in typical glass cases, several of the exhibit areas re-create frontier storefronts. 

With its muskets that never fired, printers that never pressed and lamps that never glowed, the Arabia Steamboat Museum runs the risk of being a sad trove of unfulfilled promises. But it's not. No one died in the sinking. No ghosts haunt these displays. Instead, the museum is a dazzling tribute to the optimism and industry of the pioneers who settled the West.

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