The new Louisiana State Museum-Baton Rouge is the story of Louisiana. It is an introduction to our state’s rich history for the uninitiated, and it’s a giant dose of nostalgia for those that know and love Louisiana tradition, heritage and culture.
“We are committed to preserving and showcasing Louisiana history,” Lt. Governor Mitch Landrieu says. “Louisiana is located on the Axis of the Americas, centrally located at the mouth of the mighty Mississippi River between North and South America. Throughout history we have been a center of culture, commerce and trade, and we tell that fascinating story at our museums.”
The Louisiana State Museum, which is overseen by the Office of the Lt. Governor, celebrated its 100-year anniversary in 2006. We celebrated the old and the new: the nine historic structures that provide the State Museum’s exhibit space across Louisiana, and, in birthday-party parlance, “one to grow on” with a new museum facility in Baton Rouge that faces the Louisiana State Library in the heart of Capitol Park.
Upon arrival at the Louisiana State Museum-Baton Rouge, visitors are struck by the best view of the State Capitol in town. The breezeway of the museum features a reflecting pool and gorgeous landscape architecture. An incredibly high-ceilinged entrance crosses the entire front of the State Museum’s newest facility, and here the “collection” begins.
On the first floor, a “Grounds for Greatness” section lays out Louisiana’s national significance: Poverty Point and other evidence of its prehistoric importance, the impact of the Louisiana Purchase in shaping the nation, then Louisiana’s role in war, commerce, civil rights and other aspects of modern history. With that context established, even a Louisiana novice can move on, with a bit of essential insight, to the third floor’s tribute to the people and cultures of the state, called “The Louisiana Experience.”
The process of conceiving a Louisiana overview in such detail, with such thoroughness in the overlaying of historic storytelling with elements of art, politics, commerce, folkways and natural phenomena could only have been done in one way: “The hard way,” Director of Museum Collections Greg Lambousy says. “Through years of staff meetings and brainstorming with members of the collections staff, along with our museum historians, support staff, and Science and Technology Department. It’s benefited the entire museum, really, because it’s allowed us to do things we’ve long dreamed of, like expanding the museum’s great jazz collection to encompass Louisiana music in all its forms.”
Through the center of the first floor’s “Louisiana and the Nation” exhibits runs the single most vital aspect of Louisiana’s identity and history, the Mississippi River, including its attributes, commerce, Capt. Shreve and the evolution of the steamboat, ferries and bridges, modern barge traffic, and, finally, innovations such as the levee system and Shreve’s snagboats.
Elsewhere around the giant room are sections devoted to the Louisiana Purchase, “Louisiana at War,” “Louisiana Giants” (Huey P. Long and Louis Armstrong), Sportsman’s Paradise and “Natural Abundance.” Interactive stations provide vintage filmstrips and audio bites, and the display items range from small (such as the shaving mug of Capt. “Old Push” Leathers of the steamboat Natchez or the felt sombrero Zachary Taylor wore during the Mexican War) to the gigantic (a shrimp boat from Bayou Lafourche, a massive two-row cane harvester, a vintage cotton gin from the Biedenharn collection in Monroe, and the Civil War Pioneer submarine).
It’s “Louisiana at War” that will most consume visitors, from the surprise of meeting a Choctaw brigadier general via oil portrait at the Battle of New Orleans to the surprise of finding “Laffite” actually spelled as Jean spelled it; from the barrister’s wig of CSA Secretary of War/Secretary of State Judah P. Benjamin to a timber from the Union fleet’s “Bailey’s Dam” at Alexandria. The World War II display contains bits of history including the Louisiana Maneuvers and Louisiana POW camps and the uniform of “Flying Tiger” Claire Chennault.
On the third floor, inspired by the blacktopped state roads of an earlier day, a broad black “highway” leads through the “Louisiana Experience,” complete with vintage gas pumps and direction signs. Along the highway our traditions of food, architecture, religion, festivals and recreation are presented geographically, with regions introduced by old highway billboards – “Welcome to North Louisiana” and “Greetings from Acadiana,” for example.
And you’ll pass other “sure signs” of where you are: an LSU tailgating setup, a Lucky Dog cart, a Christmas bonfire atop a levee, the African house complete with Clementine Hunter gallery inside, a photo-and-electric montage of Cane River Christmas lights, the Evangeline Oak.
Two major attractions along the “Louisiana Experience” highway are the special music and Carnival sections, the latter depicted by films, costumes and ephemera of the Cajun Courir de Mardi Gras, the Mardi Gras Indians and the traditional parade-and-ball celebrations of many towns and cities.
The music section is also divided by region: Cajun and zydeco films played in a tiny dance hall, New Orleans/Lake Charles/Ville Platte recording sessions in a typical independent studio of the ’50s, country stars at the “Louisiana Hayride,” jazz greats of New Orleans, the lintel stone of the French Opera House, and tributes to composers Louis Moreau Gottschalk and Edmond Dede. And scattered among them are displays of Clifton Chenier’s crown, the bugle from Louis Armstrong’s waifs-home days, Michael Doucet’s fiddle, Webb Pierce’s cowboy outfit, a replica of a bamboula drum, the gear and guitars of famous bluesmen, plus film stations with push-button selections of any Louisiana singer or musician you can think of.
COLLECTION OF COLLECTIONS
The 10 older locations (see p. 72) made our state museum one of the nation’s largest exhibition complexes even before the addition of 34,000 square feet in Baton Rouge. While some locations have been closed for hurricane repairs, others have been open for business.
Hit hardest were the Old U.S. Mint and colonial Madame John’s Legacy in New Orleans, and the Carnival collection in the Presbytere, but three other facilities were quickly up and running in the city. A logical starting point is the Cabildo on Jackson Square, site of ceremonies that concluded America’s great Louisiana Purchase transaction with France.
The theme of the world’s fair of 1904 in St. Louis was the Louisiana Purchase Centennial, and a replica of our Cabildo was built there to house arts and artifacts from the state of Louisiana. Back home, it was the 1904 fair that inspired the birth of our state museum two years later. Through the efforts of the Louisiana Historical Society and other benefactors, and with the blessings of the Legislature, the museum opened temporarily in an old military barracks, but within five years achieved its goal of occupying the Cabildo itself.
Today that venerable structure, built between 1795-’99 on the site of an earlier cabildo, presents Louisiana history in 10 eras, from prehistory and colonial days through Civil War and Reconstruction. Each era is revealed through appropriate portraits, documents, maps, and such artifacts as an authentic Napoleon death mask, an auction block once used for the sale of slaves, a drum that saw action at the Battle of New Orleans, and an octant (eighth cousin of the sextant) from one of the privateering vessels of Jean Laffite. Behind the Cabildo, in fact, are cells of the old calabozo, where Pierre Laffite was jailed in early 1815 before his brother struck that famous deal with Andrew Jackson for the defense of the city.
Built on the site of a 1769 Spanish arsenal, the handsome structure facing St. Peter Street adjacent to the Cabildo (and now entered through the older building) is the U.S. Arsenal, built in 1839. It was designed by noted Gothic Revival architect James Dakin, best known for designing the Old State Capitol in Baton Rouge, and provides office and meeting rooms as well as a display area for exhibits.
Jackson Square is flanked by the upper and lower Pontalba Apartments, and one of the lower apartments houses a Louisiana Office of Tourism information center. A couple of doors down, another unit consists of a museum store and courtyard downstairs and, upstairs, a state museum exhibit called the 1850 House, furnished to depict a middle-class lifestyle of the mid-19th century, when the apartments were built by the legendary Baroness de Pontalba.
AROUND THE STATE
Louisiana’s greatest modern-day romance-and-adventure story is that of the love affairs of millionaire Harry Williams with aviation and his silent-screen-star bride, Marguerite Clark. The Williams home on St. Charles Avenue in New Orleans is now a public library, but it was at a little airstrip in the Bayou Teche town of Patterson where Williams and flying sensation Jimmie Wedell designed planes that dominated the speed records of the era. It is that legacy that inspired the Wedell-Williams Aviation Museum, which is also in Patterson and was adopted in recent times by the state museum. The aviation wing is open, as well as a wing dedicated to the cypress industry that flourished in the nearby Atchafalaya in the early 1900s.
The old courthouse at 600 Second St. in Natchitoches, designed in the Richardson Romanesque style by Favrot and Livaudais of New Orleans in 1896, was replaced in 1940 by a little art-deco beauty, just around the corner on Church Street, which is still in use. The elder structure, with its distinctive façade and “hanging tower,” is now the Old Courthouse Museum, featuring special exhibitions such as its present display: “Splendors of Faith,” which showcases religious art and artifacts from the birth of Catholicism through its expansion to the Natchitoches diocese in the 18th and 19th centuries.
In far-off Washington, D.C., in the great entry hall of the U.S. Supreme Court hangs a large, masterful portrait of Edward Douglass White Jr., named chief justice by President Taft in 1910. Near it is a huge bust of glowing white marble of that same Louisiana jurist, and life-size statues of the man stand in the U.S. Capitol itself and at the entrance of the newly restored Louisiana Supreme Court building on Royal Street in New Orleans. White’s boyhood home still faces Louisiana Hwy. 1 on the west bank of Bayou Lafourche near Labadieville, a modest raised cottage built around 1838 and acquired in 1842 by White’s father, Gov. E.D. White. The cottage is now maintained by the state museum with collections relating to the life of Chief Justice White.
The Louisiana State Museum System – And Current Exhibits
701 Chartres St., New Orleans
The Cabildo was constructed in 1795-‘99 as the seat of the Spanish municipal government in New Orleans. It was also the site of the Louisiana Purchase Transfer.
Exhibit: “The Cabildo: Two Hundred Years of Louisiana History”
Tues.-Sun., 9 a.m.-5 p.m.
751 Chartres St., New Orleans
This building was designed in 1791 to match the Cabildo on the other side of St. Louis Cathedral, and it was built on the site of the residence of the Capuchin monks. It was used a courthouse until 1911, when it became part of the Louisiana State Museum.
Exhibit: “Mardi Gras: It’s Carnival Time in Louisiana”
Fri-Sat., 10 a.m.-4p.m.
600 St. Peter St., New Orleans
Designed by architect James Dakin, the Arsenal is situated on the site of the 1769 Spanish Arsenal.
Tues.-Sun., 9 a.m.-5 p.m.
The Old U.S. Mint
400 Esplanade Ave.,
Former President Andrew Jackson, in order to help finance development of the nation’s western frontier, advocated the construction of this building in 1835. This is the only building in the country that has served as both a U.S. and Confederate Mint.
Temporarily closed for hurricane-related repairs; check for updates.
Madame John’s Legacy
632 Dumaine St., New Orleans
Madame John’s Legacy serves as a surviving example of Creole residential designs during the late 1700s; many others were destroyed by fire in 1795.
Temporarily closed for hurricane-related repairs; check for updates.
523 St. Ann St., Lower Pontalba Building, New Orleans
Originally intended as upscale residences and retail establishments, these “rowhomes” were built with a Parisian architectural style, which the Baroness Micaela Almonester de Pontalba – the daughter of a Spanish colonial landowner – enjoyed. Temporarily closed for hurricane-related repairs; check for updates.
Jackson House and the Creole House
619 Pirates Alley, New Orleans
The Creole House and the Jackson House occupy the area that was originally associated with the French Guard House, built in 1726. The Friends of the Cabildo, a support organization, has its office in the Creole House. The Museum’s education offices are located in the Jackson House.
The Friends of the Cabildo host a two-hour walking tour, which starts at the 1850 House Museum Store on Jackson Square at 523 St. Ann St.
Tues.-Sun.10 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Reservations not necessary. (504) 523-3939
The Louisiana State Museum-Patterson
LA. 90 in Kemper Williams Park, Patterson
The state’s official aviation museum, this museum holds many artifacts and documents reflecting aviation history in Louisiana. It especially focuses on two aviators – Jimmy Wedell and Harry Williams – who formed an air service in Patterson in 1928.
Tues.-Sat. 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m.
Old Courthouse Museum
600 Second St., Natchitoches
Built in 1896, the building is an example of the architectural style, Richardson Romanesque, after Henry Hobson Richardson – a Louisiana native who studied in Paris.
Exhibit: “Splendors of the Faith” – an exhibition of religious art and artifacts from the birth of Catholicism through its expansion in the Natchitoches diocese during the 18th and 19th centuries.
Through June 1, 2007
Mon-Sat., 9 a.m.-5 p.m.
Also, 2nd Saturday events for children:
“Louisiana Game Day”
“Come to the Mardi Gras”
“Catahoula Puppy Pals”
“Sac-Au-Lait Puffy Pillows”
10 a.m.-11 a.m. for “2nd Saturday” events.
2295 LA. Hwy 1, Thibodaux
This plantation residence has been the home of two prominent politicians: Gov. Edward Douglass White, and his son, U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice, Edward Douglass White Jr. It was built sometime between the late 1700s and early 1830s. This historic site offers curator guided tours.
Tues.-Sat. 9 a.m.-5 p.m.
Louisiana State Museum
– Baton Rouge
660 N. 4th St., Baton Rouge
This museum opened in February 2006 and features permanent exhibits. The first and second floor host “Grounds for Greatness” – with artifacts, photographs and other items pertaining to Louisiana and its impact on the rest of the country, including documents from the Louisiana purchase, wars and facts about politicians, musicians and other famous Louisianians in history. The third floor hosts “Experiencing Louisiana: Discovering the Soul of America,” which is a tribute to Louisiana’s culture, including Carnival, tailgating, various festivals, music and artwork.
Tues.-Sat. 9 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sun. noon-5 p.m.
For more information: http://lsm.crt.state.la.us.