La Belle: The Ship That Changed History

The Bullock Texas State History Museum
Austin, TX

La Belle: The Ship That Changed History is a 6,000 square foot special exhibition that examines the more than three hundred years of history of a French ship and its demise off the coast of Texas. Heralded as “one of the most important shipwreck discoveries in North America,” the La Belle was part of a failed 1684 expedition led by French explorer Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle to establish a colony at the mouth of the Mississippi River.

La Belle was found on the silt bottom of Matagorda Bay with much of the cargo and hull preserved. Because the principal artifact recovered was the fifty-three-foot shattered ship’s hull, the Bullock Museum planned the temporary exhibition with several goals in mind to engage visitors with the reconstruction and exhibit process. They wanted to tell the story of the historic voyage of La Salle and its importance for the shaping of Texas in the seventeenth century, as well as to emphasize the scientific efforts that prompted new developments in underwater archaeology and ship preservation techniques. The museum also wanted to invite visitors into the reconstruction process by offering an accessible area where they could see the curator and conservator reassembling the ship’s six hundred fragments. During assembly days, they arranged to live-stream the ship’s rebuilding process on the museum’s website.

In addition to the live assembly of the ship’s hull, the exhibition includes multiple components especially created for the project: an introductory film tells the story of La Salle and the 1684 expedition, while a photographic timeline details the eighteen-year excavation and conservation process. Visitors can view artifact cases featuring over a hundred objects, many of which have never been on view before, and interact with touchpads inviting visitors to explore more in-depth information on the artifacts such as use, purpose, and how they were loaded on the ship.

La Belle: The Ship That Changed History has prompted a revision of the museum’s entire permanent gallery in order to stage the necessary context and consequences of the French presence in the Gulf. These changes will include an expansion of installations on regional Native Americans, as well as substantial enlargement of the Spanish Colonial area. Upon completion of the museum’s renovated galleries in 2016, the ship and its contextual setting will be one of the most significant historical exhibits on early European settlement in the nation.