Museum of the Gulf Coast takes visitors back in time

Time capsule contents

The Museum of the Gulf Coast in Port Arthur took visitors on a journey back in time on July 2. Museum staff displayed items from a time capsule buried 20 years ago in July 1994 and other rare items the museum has collected over the last 50 years.

Museum curator Sarah Bellian says the museum does not just display items and information from and about Port Arthur but all of Southeast Texas.

“It’s the Museum of the Gulf Coast,” Bellian asserted. “We’ve acquired a lot of items from all over the area – Beaumont, Orange, Vidor and various places.”

At the July 2 event, the museum and its backers – the Port Arthur Historical Society, Lamar State College-Port Arthur and the City of Port Arthur – invited guests to join them to show off some of those items.

Museum staff presented objects from the time capsule for view at the event. Unfortunately, said Bellian, the vessel had ruptured and time failed to stand still within the capsule that museum staff unearthed 20 years after its interment. Bellian says the capsule was breached prior to its exhumation, and when it was opened on July 1, she found the items inside were damaged by time and the elements.

“The time capsule was in a PVC tube,” Bellian explained. “It was sealed on the top and the bottom. That’s not necessarily a bad way to make a time capsule, but either because of the sealant that was used or because of some type of solvents in the water table, the bottom seal came undone. Now, the time capsule was buried really, really deep, which in Southeast Texas is probably not the best place to bury it because part of the year, all the time, it was under water, which wouldn’t have actually been a problem being that it was made out of PVC except that that seal broke. When that seal broke, like a drinking straw, it sucked all the water up into it. So, all the stuff has been under water for 20 years.”

Bellian described the items within the tube as being “like an archaeological find.”

“We actually had to clean all this stuff off because it was all encased in dirt and water,” she recalled. “It was not even recognizable when we first pulled it out. All you could see was just a little glimpse of plastic, a little glimpse of wood, and we realized, hey, these are objects. This is what we were able to recover because the time capsule itself was completely exploded.”

Bellian and her trained staff were able to salvage a few items, displayed on a small table in front of the museum’s “Fifty Years, Fifty Objects” exhibit celebrating the 50-year anniversary of the state of Texas granting the city a museum charter and including some items that have never been displayed by the museum. The recovered items included an unidentifiable, unplayable VHS tape, a ruined baseball cap, a Pleasure Island baseball cap that stayed somewhat intact after being stored in a plastic Chevron bag, some laminated posters, a bumper sticker, a pen, a coaster, a plastic cup, and a wooden baton.

Bellian said while disappointed, she was not surprised by the damage to the time capsule.

“It’s actually very uncommon for a time capsule to survive,” said Bellian. “This is something people don’t realize. People are always fascinated with the idea of a time capsule, but burying something is about the dumbest thing you can do with it. People don’t think about it but you’re talking about groundwater, any chemicals that are in the ground water. We are in refinery central. Our ground water has all kinds of stuff in it. So, we are basically putting it in a chemical bath, and we’re trusting that this tiny little residue of glue is going to be sufficient to keep those chemicals and that water out.”

Bellian had some tips for people who want to store valuable items.

“Don’t bury anything that you care about,” Bellian cautioned. “Don’t store anything in a metal can. Don’t store anything in a sealed Rubbermaid bin in your basement or in your attic because the humidity and the temperature get too high. Like the PVC, the Rubbermaid bin doesn’t breathe. It’s fine to keep something dry, but if there is moisture already in there, what you’ve created is a little steamer, like for steaming vegetables, but you don’t want to do that with cloth and paper, especially not photos. The best place to put photos that you want to preserve is in a clean cardboard, like an archival cardboard that you can get on the Internet, in the top of your closet in your house. Somewhere where the air conditioner and heat will keep the temperature relatively consistent and keep the humidity from getting too high.”

Bellian said she is happy to help anyone looking for advice on how to store valuables. Interested parties can contact her at the museum on Procter Street or by phone at (409) 982-7000.

Port Arthur resident Byron Jarratt attended the July 2 event at the Museum of the Gulf Coast. He told Bellian he was present for the burial of the time capsule 20 years ago and that he loves to view the items at the museum. Jarratt expressed a special interest in photos from a streetcar line that once ran through the town. On his key ring, Jarratt has a valuable item of his own. He had a token from the streetcar, a venture on which his father once worked, he related.

Jarratt said, “He did a lot of things to make money. He was a building contractor. He sold fertilizer by the wheelbarrow. He even sold bananas off the stalk down by the port.”

To take a look into the past and forward into the present, visit the Museum of the Gulf Coast at 700 Procter St. in Port Arthur. According to Bellian, there is something there for everyone.