“If people think about steamboats and riverboat gamblers, this was before that. And it was a very different thing,” Provo said. “The rivers were wild places. The sandbars would shift, logs would move, snags would pop up. So it was a very dangerous environment. In fact, most boats didn't make it six years. A boat that was six years old as the Heroine was — it was built in 1832 — we have a journal description that talked about it being ‘a tired old boat.'”
Actual items recovered from the steamboat — from corn cobs and water pipes to medicine bottles and boots — are displayed alongside drawings and models detailing the ship before and after the wreck.
“Right now it's a facade … but our intention in the future is to create upstairs an upper-deck cabin where you have a common eating area, a men's cabin, a women's cabin, and start to tell some of the more personal day-to-day lives and stories of some of the people that were and would've been on the boat,” Provo said.
“Nothing takes the place of seeing the real stuff. And here's a chance for people to see it up close: They see the size, the scale, what it means, how it fits together, how it all works.”
Matt Reed, the history center's curator of military history and American Indian collections, also incorporated flour barrels and other items recovered from the Heroine into the revamped adjacent exhibit “A Sense of Duty: Oklahomans Defending Their Country,” which explores the state's military history.
“I wanted to give people more of an insight into what it was like to try to find food in the Army on the frontier,” he said. “They supplemented their diet with flour, pork, vinegar, beans — and that's kind of what was coming on the steamboat in addition to candles and soap — but one of the things … Congress thought was a cost-saving measure was to ship these books called ‘The New American Gardener' with packets of seeds out the posts and then soldiers were going to plant gardens and they would grow their own food. So that's a lot of what you saw when you went to Fort Gibson or Fort Towson.”
The changes to the second-floor gallery — along with the new “Steamboat Heroine” and revamped military history exhibit, it boasts an updated display on the state's African-American history and a new exhibit dedicated to oil and natural gas — are part of the history center's ongoing mission to keep its offerings fresh.
“We've been open for eight years, and we've been changing exhibits … that whole time. But with this one, we wanted to tell a couple of different stories on a larger scale,” Provo said.