New Orlean’s French Quarter Museums

We are always suckers for visiting museums in any city we visit and New Orleans was no exception. We visited a number of the city’s history museums. These included:

Jean Lafitte National Park

This historical park actually has several branches across the state, each focusing on a different aspect of Louisiana landscape, history and culture. We visited two of these branches: one in New Orleans and one in the town of Thibodaux (which is discussed in a forthcoming post) that focuses on the history and culture of “Le Cadiens”, the French Canadians who were expelled from Nova Scotia.

The New Orleans park has exhibits that briefly discuss the Indian tribes who made their homes on this land before the first European’s even knew there was land east of the Atlantic and the 1718 French founding and initial settlement of the territory as a French colony. It looks at the beginning of slavery, when France began bringing slaves from its Caribbean colonies, and later, directly from West Africa and then how France ceded the colony to its ally Spain in 1762 as an alternative to losing it to its English enemies in reparations for the French and Indian War. It discussed the city’s great growth as a shipping point for cotton, sugar and lumber and how this, by the mid-1800’s, made New Orleans the wealthiest city in the country, and provided many recorded examples of the musical culture that developed in this heterogamous enclave.

It also provided a glimpse (which is expanded upon in other branches of the Jean Lafitte Park), into the Creole (which refers to families, of any heritage, with ancestors born in Louisiana prior to 1803 and who spoke French) culture. This led to an overview (again, expanded upon in other park branches) of the settlement and economic development of bayou country, where everyday families who lived in stilted homes, scratched out mainly subsistence livings by small-scale trapping, fishing, farming, lumbering and by picking and drying moss (which was sold for use in stuffing mattresses and pillows). Then, of course, there were the wealthier, planter families—those who build plantations on the higher ground along the banks of the Mississippi and bought slaves to plant, harvest and process the crops. (Planation life is discussed in a subsequent blog where we discuss a day’s drive through bayou and planation country.)

After this overview, we took one of the center’s brief walking tours. Although it was supposed to focus on the history and development of the New Orleans waterfront, our guide focused on the history of the quarter, which would duplicate part of the material that would be addressed in more detail in another tour we had already organized. Even so, we decided to take the tour as an introduction and supplement to what we planned to learn on our other tour and in museums.

This tour began at the city’s Founder’s Statue, where our guide briefly discussed the initial Indian home, Lemoyne’s discovery of the Mississippi, Bienville’s initial settling of New Orleans, and John Law’s efforts to sell land to settlers that he drew into the new territory (see our previous post on our French Quarter Walking Tour).

Jean Lafitte founders statue

We then walked a couple of the Quarter’s streets where our guide explained how a 1789 fire destroyed almost three-quarters of the city’s roughly 11,000 cypress and dried moss (which was used as insulation) buildings and how this prompted the development of fire codes and resulted in an Old Square (Vieux Carre) that was built by highly-skilled Caribbean slaves and is still dominated by Spanish, rather than by French Colonial architecture. She briefly discussed the rapid development of the port that profited from the trading of slaves, sugar, cotton and lumber and how the genteel French Catholic culture of the city began to change as upstart, boorish and Protestant Americans began to “invade” the city after America’s 1803 acquisition of the entire Louisiana territory. She showed us the location of the square where slaves were dressed (in suits manufactured by Brooks Brothers) and displayed to be sold for prices ranging from approximately $50 to $150, depending on age, sex and skills, and how Louisiana’s slave culture was generally more permissive than those of other major slave cities. She explained how the city’s “Code Noire” designated that early slaves were “free” on Sundays, that they could sell goods that they made, could enter into contracts and even that they could sue their owners for wages and buy their own freedom. More importantly, free people of color were accepted and generally integrated into New Orleans society and while marriage between blacks and whites were officially illegal, so-called left-hand marriages were relatively common and accepted (especially with mulattos, quadroons and octoroons or those who were one-half, three-quarters of seven-eighths white).

The Historic Williams Collection. This well-curated collection of artifacts from New Orleans’ 300+-year history is based on a collection of and endowment from Kemper and Leila Williams, scion of a cypress lumber baron family whose huge swamp acreage just happened to lie atop vast oil and gas deposits. The family made a huge commitment to the French Quarter in the late 1930s, when the run-down quarter was on the verge of being demolished and converted to low-cost housing. Significantly responsible for the neighborhood’s revival, the couple donated their collection, a portion of their wealth and their New Orleans’ home to the foundation. We visited the museum (although not the home) and were greeted by an incredibly helpful staff, including Albert, a docent who took us through a number of the galleries, explaining the region’s history and pointing out some of the most significant articles of the collection.

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Albert began with an overview of Louisiana’s history, from the founding by LaSalle, the exploration of Lemoyne and the 1718 founding of New Orleans. The museum’s limited overview text explained the French founding of the city, France’s granting it to Spain to prevent it from being turned over to England as a war reparation, and how the city was twice saved from the ravages of war (see the above discussion of Lafitte National Park).

Its primary theme was on how the city and its culture was shaped by multiple waves of immigration and the complete integration of many different people and cultures; initially from France, Nova Scotia, the Caribbean, East Africa, Spain, and later from Germany, Ireland and Italy, creating a true melting pot whose culture and sensibilities were far different from other early American cities and even today, from the rest of the country. It also provides some interesting, unexpected facts, such as the city’s relatively tolerant approach to blacks (courtesy primarily of the Spanish), the fact that 19 percent of the city’s residents in 1840 were free people-of-color, the status and wealth achieved by some of them and how the combination of sugar, cotton and the city’s location at the base of the Mississippi made New Orleans the wealthiest city in the country by the mid-1800s.

But while the museum and its docents do provide some helpful historical information, and the iPads located in many of the galleries provide valuable background information, the Collection is more about displaying and explaining the historical contest of artifacts of the city’s history than it is about explaining the history. These artifacts, which include everything from ancient documents and letters to paintings and many different objects—from officer swords and dueling pistols to icons of the Mardi Gras’ first krewes and instruments of some of the city’s Jazz greats, provide as vivid a picture of the city’s unique history and culture as to volumes of words.

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The museum also has a section devoted to one form of the area’s artistic culture (in the form of more than 1,000 hand-carved and hand-painted duck decoys) to temporary exhibits (including the current exhibit dedicated to Henry Howard, an architect who designed some of the city’s most iconic buildings and the homes of a number of the city and the state’s premier families. A very worthwhile stop and, especially since it is free (other than for personal tours of the Williams house), one than should be mandatory for anyone interested in the region’s fascinating history.

We also stopped at the Collection’s nearby satellite location which had a display of David Spielman’s photographs that detailed the less-than-complete recovery efforts ten years after Katrina. These photos, a follow-up to a series he produced just after the disaster, were as chilling as some of those from a decade before. Chilling in how much work remains to be done, how many of the buildings and neighborhoods are never likely to be respired, and in how rapidly nature rushes in to fill the void left by man. Some of the photos, by contrast, were almost uplifting in their reflection of resident’s ability to maintain a sense of humor, even in the face of such devastation and loss. A very poignant exhibition.

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New Orleans Jazz National Park. The focus of this National Park Service effort is around concerts and walking tours. It also has a small, but interesting exhibit explaining how the city’s unique mix of cultures and musical traditions and styles—especially French Canadian (Acadian), Caribbean and African—combined to create the first truly American form of music and how Jazz either directly led to, or heavily influenced other forms of music including the Blues, Ragtime, R&B, bebop and lent new, more jagged forms of percussion-based rhythms and improvisation to other forms of music, such as swing. It traces the history and evolution of jazz and associated musical forms in the city through as number of self- and ranger-guided walking tours and sponsors a number of concerts.

The Living with Hurricanes–Hurricane Katrina display occupies half of a larger museum in Lafayette Square’s Presbytere building, The museum entry is highlighted by the remains of Fats Domino’s piano, which was damaged by the Katrina flood. The museum itself began with descriptions of ways in which man tried to tame, or at least accommodate the forces of nature, such as by building levees, spillways, drainage systems new types of pumps and by raising houses off the ground, It descried how the 1927 flood, which inundated one-third of the city and led to an upgrading of these systems. Then, how Katrina, which was made even worse by the decimation of the area’s wetlands in the name of development, and the manmade defenses against floods actually contributed to the resultant devastation. Levees, for example, were poorly designed and relied on a porous soil that helped undermine the defenses and the drainage systems pulled moisture from and led to a compaction of the soil, thereby further reducing the elevation of land what was already at or barely above sea-level.

Fats Domino piano after Katrina

It shows movies that portray the power of the storm and television broadcasts that provide blow-by-blow descriptions of the storm and its effects as it was happening. It explains how the water, which in some cases, rose several feet within minutes, prevented evacuation and forced people to take refuse in attics and on roofs. And, since it took so long to rescue them, how so many people died of heat and suffered heat-induced deaths, as by heart attack, dehydration and lack of access to medication. It discusses the role of the Superdome as the refuge of last resort and how even it was overwhelmed by the needs of 35,000 people. And, how the number of casualties and the degree of suffering was exacerbated by poor government planning and preparedness and the ineptness and lack of communication and coordination among governmental organizations.

The museum heralded the perseverance and heroism of first responders and of much of the local news media, some of whom put themselves at risk to provide up-to-date information. It displayed mementos of these people along with those of a number of the hurricane and resulting flood’s victims, including a particularly poignant diary of one of the estimated 5,000 people who were trapped in their homes for days after the storm. This diary, written on the walls of a house, described the day-to-day tribulations of people waiting to be rescued. The final sections of the museum details the engineering, planning and coordination flaws that magnified the damage and suffering attributable to Katrina and how they are being addresses. Or at least, are being partially addressed. The exhibit concludes that little is being done to plan for the sea rise attributable to global warming (which they estimate at between two to seven feet over the next century). And in a state that is so dependent on the oil and gas industry, and in which many of the leaders still deny global warming, little is likely to be done. One of the final conclusions: Residents must take more responsibility for their property’s and their own protection.

New Orleans Mardi Gras Museum occupies the other half of the Presbytere. This space, covered by the same admission fee, is home to a very different type of museum: one dedicated to the annual celebration of Mardi Gras. This being said, one of the last sections of the Katrina display does have an exhibit (which can also be seen from the base of the stairs leading up to the Mardi Gras display) that provides a transition between these two very different displays: A Mardi Gras costumed created partially from one of the blue plastic tarps that were used to cover buildings after the devastation.

Man in blue suit

Once you reach the top of the stairs, you are in a new world. This world is divided into three primary sections. A central corridor provides an overview of the role of Mardi Gras in the state’s economy. One side, meanwhile, is dedicated to let-it-all-loose, Mardi Gras Parades, and the other to the extravagant Mardi Gras Balls.

The museum examines the origins and evolution of the multi-cultural celebration, from the days of informal parties at peoples’ homes through the extravagant state-wide celebrations of today, where preparations literally begin the day after the previous year’s celebration, around which many companies (such as those that make beads and costumes and produce floats) have been created and maintained, and draw 1.5 million visitors per year and contribute $1-1.5 billion in annual revenue to the state’s economy.

Although informal parades are thought to have been staged at least since the mid-18th century, the first documented one was in 1791 the first floats began appearing in 1857 and the first refereed parade was held in 1872. These floats, which began as decorated horse-drawn carriages, have evolved into ever-more extravagant and technologically sophisticated extravaganzas created and manned by a growing number of social groups (called krewes) and societies (super-krewes) that develop them around defined themes. Some balls, which began as masquerade parties in individual homes, have evolved into exclusive, extravagant, social events and pageants that are governed by ritual. Others have become much less formal public affairs that are open to anyone who wishes to pay for entry. For both, the costumes have become quite elaborate.


Pharmacy Museum

This is a fascinating storefront museum that replicates the 1816 pharmacy of one of the first licensed pharmacists in the nation. Interpretive signs in the storefront and a second-floor extension, display medicines in period containers, display medical instruments and of particular interest, explain the medical and pharmaceutical practices of the day and explaining which ones:

  • Worked, such as many homeopathic treatments, bitters to aid digestion, alcohol for sterilization and as a sedative, opiates and marijuana (in limited and controlled doses), and the use of drills to cut holes in the skull and release pressure on the brain; and those that
  • Didn’t work such as the uses of leeches and other bloodletting devices, the wide range of quack and even a number of patented medicines.

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Other sections of the museum discussed a number of the worse communicable diseases of the day (malaria, yellow fever, cholera, smallpox, etc.) and how they were unsuccessfully treated (partly since the causes of these diseases were not yet understood); the myths surrounding both the dangers and the benefits of alcohol; the then state-of-the art eyewear; and the importance of midwifery.

Then the fascinating explanation of the history of soda fountains in pharmacies. Bitters, which were effective in improving digestion, were so bitter that they were often mixed with sweet syrups and carbonated water (which was thought to “excite the system”. These were mixed and taken at the pharmacist’s office (in contract, incidentally, with leeches, which were bought from pharmacists but administered by barbers!). So popular were these mixtures that pharmacists began concocting their own mixtures with other “medications” (such as caffeine) and even without any medications at all. Given this, it is not too surprising than many popular sodas (Coke, Pepsi, Doctor Pepper, 7Up, and so forth), were invented by pharmacists. These soda fountains were also popular during prohibition, since alcohol could still be sold for “medicinal purposes”.

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New Orleans Mint

This building was used as a mint by both the U.S. and Confederate governments. The first floor of this lovely, historic building has displays of old coins and of some of the 19th-century equipment used to produce them. We particularly enjoyed the second floor exhibits, which were dedicated to jazz musicians and groups. We especially enjoyed a two-room exhibition that profiles the life and music of the great Louis “Satcho” Armstrong, which began with his childhood, and his two early prison sentences—the second of in which he learned to play the coronet. The exhibit then describes his career, from his rapid rise to a star of the New Orleans Jazz scene, his promotion to the “big time” in Chicago, his triumphal return to New Orleans and his pride in being named King of the Zulu krewe for the 1949 Mardi Gras.

The exhibit also has of recordings of some of Satcho’s songs and speeches and a fascinating series of Interviews with Dick Cavett in which the musician reveals the personality and the sense of humor that were almost as important as his musical skills in his becoming a global celebrity.

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We also viewed, but did not specifically tour, a couple of other particularly historic New Orleans buildings including the:

  • Cabildo, an history museum with an exhibit detailing the rag-tag band of American regular and irregular troops’ overwhelming defeat of the larger, better armed and better trained British force, the controversial role of Jean Lafitte and the way in which the battle catapulted Andrew Jackson to national fame and the presidency;
  • 1850 House, a rowhouse built and lived in by Baroness Pontabla, with many of its original furnishings;
  • Madame John’s Legacy House, a 1788 Creole-style building that is one of the few to have survived the 1794 fire;
  • Napoléon Building, which was built in 1850 and currently houses a period bar; and
  • The Cornstalk Hotel, an early 19th-century building that currently serves as a hotel and is decorated with an iron fence adorned with cornstalks.

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We also walked past many, many other buildings that are so old and so lovely as to make our list, if not necessarily that of the historical committees. These homes, with elaborate, multi-story filigree-type iron balconies, like the neighboring Cornstalk Inn, just happened to be decked out in a form similar to a traditional New Orleans pre-Halloween celebration in preparation for the filming of a new Tom Cruise movie titled “Never Go Back”.

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And then there was the World War II Museum which was so impressive that we devoted our next blog to it.

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