Published Jul/Aug 2006

Left: The Crown for Rex, 1881 King of Carnival, is on display at the Presbytere.

The Louisiana State Museum is celebrating a century of history and heritage.
By Nicole Larroque Dufour

ut on the party hat and head to Louisiana for a birthday celebration not to be missed. It’s the Louisiana State Museum’s centennial celebration, but party guests will get the gifts. Changing exhibits and events highlighting state history and culture will take place at museum locations throughout the state.

The opening of the new Louisiana State Museum-Baton Rouge launched the celebrations. The good times continue to roll through July, with birthday parties at various locations, and into the fall, with musical celebrations and other events.

A cultural tapestry

The 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis commemorated the anniversary of the land deal that doubled the size of the United States. Organizers of Louisiana’s presentation at that event resolved to preserve their exhibit for a permanent state museum. The Louisiana State Exhibit and Museum opened in New Orleans in 1905. Today, it consists of a complex of 12 landmarks throughout the state, each representing a different thread in Louisiana’s colorful cultural tapestry.

The Cabildo

In New Orleans’ Jackson Square, the Cabildo (701 Chartres St.) stands as a reminder of Louisiana’s colonial roots. Completed in 1799 for the Spanish colonial government, it is the Louisiana State Museum’s flagship property, and has been the setting for important events in state and U.S. history. Inside the Sala Capitular (council room), take a moment to imagine the historic events of this one room: Colonial government meetings; the signing of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803; and the first hearing of the Plessy vs. Ferguson segregation case in 1892.

The Cabildo contains more than 1,000 artifacts and pieces of art and offers a fascinating glimpse of early Louisiana and the people who braved mosquitoes, swamps, yellow fever and hurricanes to make this their home. Portraits of early colonials and illustrious characters, including Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau, line the Cabildo’s walls. Exhibits provide detailed descriptions of the area’s early Native American inhabitants, as well as life in Louisiana during the Civil War and Reconstruction eras.

Adjacent to the Cabildo, the 1839 Arsenal building (600 St. Peter St.) sits on the site of a Spanish arsenal and houses changing exhibits.

The Presbytere

This structure was built in 1791 to house New Orleans’ Capuchin monks. But instead of quiet meditation, today’s Presbytere (751 Chartres St.) is more likely to inspire you to do the Mardi Gras mambo.

Just steps away from the Cabildo, the Presbytere is about the fun and frivolity of Mardi Gras in New Orleans and south Louisiana. Experience the holiday year-round through audio and video technology and galleries filled with memorabilia and artifacts. Exhibits focus on Mardi Gras history, masking, parades, balls and Cajun Country’s Courir de Mardi Gras.

Old U.S. Mint, Madame John’s Legacy & 1850 House

The Old U.S. Mint (400 Esplanade Ave.) lost part of its copper roof during the storm. Built in 1835, it served as both a U.S. and Confederate mint. Before Hurricane Katrina, the mint housed an extensive New Orleans jazz collection. It will reopen in 2008.

Madame John’s Legacy (632 Dumaine St.), a rare original 18th-century Creole home that survived the great fire of 1795, and the 1850 House (523 St. Ann), a French Quarter home showcasing antebellum city life, are closed due to staffing shortages. Currently, there are no scheduled dates for the reopening of these sites.

Two more historic structures in New Orleans–the Creole House and Jackson House–are used as administration buildings by the Louisiana State Museum.

Outside of New Orleans

In Thibodaux, the E.D. White Historic Site (2295 state Highway 1) is an example of the classic south Louisiana raised cottage of the pre-Civil War era, built between the late 18th century and 1830. It was home to Louisiana Gov. Edward Douglass White, and his son, Edward Douglass White, who was Louisiana’s first U.S. Supreme Court justice.

Down the bayou, visit the Louisiana State Museum-Patterson (on Louisiana Highway 90 in Kemper Williams Park). The museum is devoted to aviation in honor of two famous Louisiana aviators–Jimmie Wedell and Harry Williams–who formed an air service in Patterson in 1928. Exhibits include an airworthy replica of Wedell’s 44 racer, a 1939 D175 Beechcraft and the state’s largest collection of model airplanes. The museum also includes a look at the area’s once thriving cypress lumber industry.

Upstate, at the Old Courthouse Museum (600 Second St.) in Natchitoches, visitors can see “Revealing an American Wilderness: Audubon’s Birds of Louisiana,” an exhibit on view now through Aug. 5. A Smithsonian traveling exhibit, “Key Ingredients: America by Food,” opens Aug. 15.

Plans for a new state museum dedicated to north Louisiana history and a Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame are underway.

The biggest birthday gift

While these properties focus on specific aspects of state history and culture, the new 69,000-square-foot Louisiana State Museum-Baton Rouge (Capitol Park, 660 North Fourth St.) pulls it all together in one incredible birthday package.

The “Grounds for Greatness: Louisiana and the Nation” takes a close look at the Mississippi River, from its environmental importance to its role as an avenue of commerce. Explore Louisiana’s diverse wildlife, agricultural history, and fishing and hunting traditions in the “Natural Abundance” section. The Poverty Point display investigates the exceptional prehistoric American Indian earthworks in northeast Louisiana.

Upstairs, let your hair down and savor “The Louisiana Experience: Discovering the Soul of America,” a tribute to the state’s people and cultures. Learn about Louisiana’s rich music legacy. Artifacts include Clifton Chenier’s accordion and Buddy Guy’s guitar. The museum also has a changing exhibit gallery and space for educational programs.

Centennial celebration

The Louisiana State Museum is commemorating the centennial by showcasing 100 artifacts at locations across the state. Items include Napoleon’s death mask and a Civil War submarine. In July, each location is throwing its own birthday party on a designated weekend. Events are tailored to match the unique heritage of each site. Then in October, music will be the theme, with performances by Louisiana musicians at the different museum locations.

Nicole Larroque Dufour is a contributor from New Orleans, La.

Above: The new museum in Baton Rouge is brimming with exhibits. Louisiana State Museum photos

Below: Located in New Orleans’ Jackson Square, the Cabildo is the flagship of the state museum system. The Louisiana Purchase was signed here in 1803. Louisiana State Museum photo

Before You Go
For information, contact the Louisiana State Museum at http://lsm.crt.state.la.us, or call 1-800-568-6968 for New Orleans area sites. Outside New Orleans, call:

• E.D. White Historic Site, (985) 447-0915

• Louisiana State Museum-Patterson, (985) 399-1268

• Old Courthouse Museum, (318) 357-2270

• Louisiana State Museum-Baton Rouge, (225) 342-5428.

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