New Orleans Museums

New Orleans has much more than jazz. If you go there, check out New Orleans Museums.

National WWII Museum

Our single longest activity (outside the Jazz Festival) was a return visit to the incredible National WWII Museum. As on our last visit, we easily spent an entire day there. The museum continues to add new exhibits. We started at the exhibit on the Pacific Theater, named the Road to Tokyo, which wasn’t open on our last trip.

Pacific Theatre

This section began with a discussion of how ill-prepared the U.S. was for war even before the Japanese took out much of our Pacific fleet in Pearl Harbor. But even with this, and early Japanese victories in Guam, Wake Island and the Philippines and our defective torpedoes which took out almost as many of our own sips as they did Japanese, we did manage to protect Australia in the Battle of the Coral Sea and make successful bombing raids on six Japanese cities in early 1942 and then, launch a surprise attack and destroy four Japanese aircraft carriers in the Battle of Midway.

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Then, after our first successful amphibious landing and six-month campaign in the Battle of Guadalcanal, the U.S. engaged in a successful “island hopping” strategy in which we picked off a number of lightly defended islands in a way that allowed us to isolate more heavily defended Japanese bases, rather than attack them directly.

Although tropical weather and diseases ended up killing and disabling more of our men than did Japanese soldiers, we greatly benefitted by the actions of China (both Chiang Kai Shek and Mao Te Tung in tying down more than 1 million Japanese troops in China alone. Still the Japanese capture of Burma disrupted our ability to supply Chinese troops with weapons and could have led to China’s subjugation were it not for a dangerous decision to supply Chinese resistance fights via a Trans-Himalayan airlift.

This, combined with an American victory in the Marianas Islands and Saipan put Japan on the defensive and allowed us to sustain bombing of the Japanese mainland. Our 1944 recapture of the Philippines then threatened the Japanese oil supply and allowed us to begin direct attacks on and win critical, but highly costly battles in Iwo Jima and Okinawa, the latter of which took three months to capture and cost more U.S. lives than any other naval battle in our country’s history.

By this time, the Japanese had suffered more than 90,000 military and 150,000 civilian casualties. Desperately, they begun to resort to suicidal kamikaze attack (more than 2,000 in total) and had fallen prey to low-altitude firebomb attacks that devastated their lumber and paper houses, killed more than 100,000 civilians and had taken the island nation to the brink of starvation.

Ultimate victory, however, would have required more than bombing raids or starvation. It was estimated than an all-out invasion of japan would have cost more than 250,000 American lives. In the end, however, this invasion never came. Just after FDR’s death, President Truman learned, for the first time about the Manhattan Project and the successful development of the atomic bomb. Rather than risk hundreds of thousands of American lives, he made the fateful decision to use the bomb—first on Hiroshima, then on Nagasaki. Emperor Hirohito finally ordered a surrender on August 15, 1945 and signed an unconditional surrender on September 2.

European Theatre Section

We then took a quick refresher spin through the European Theater Section of the museum (see our 2016 post) before visiting two additional exhibits—one on the American home front during the war and another on the elaborate planning and deceptions that surrounded the Allied invasion of Normandy.

The home front exhibition, called The Arsenal of Democracy”, which began by explaining the foundations of the war, from the punitive, WWI-ending Versailles Treaty, how it helped lead the German people to elect Hitler, his steady march to war, the emergence of Mussolini and Japan’s growing effort to control Asia and the Pacific. Although Roosevelt attempted to help England n the few ways he could, an isolationist nation, still emerging from the Great Depression, effectively ignored Germany’s Blitzkrieg march across Europe, its bombing of England, Japan’s brutal massacre of hundreds of thousands of Chinese even German U-boats’ sinking of more than 400 U.S. ships.

By the time Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, the U.S. military rank about 25th in the number of troops (fewer than Romania). It then showed how, despite moving 16 million men (11 percent of the total U.S. population) into the military, U.S. civilians still managed to growth our total economy by an amazing 50 percent during the war. This included dramatically increasing our production of sophisticated equipment (including 300,000 planes), redefining production processes, improving labor productivity by 25 percent and inventing products (synthetic rubber and high-octane gas, not to speak of nuclear energy) and production techniques (such as pre-fabricating ships, shipping oil through pipelines, and so forth).

How did it do this? Through an unprecedented combination of government/industry cooperation, patriotism (as in the purchase of War Bonds to finance the war), relocation to industrial centers (25 percent of the population moved) and the introduction of women and blacks into the manufacturing workforce. By the time the war ended, and Europe and Japan lay in ruins, the U.S. had become the world’s dominant economy, accounting for more than a quarter of global output and prepared for a post-war boom that would lead the world.

Not to gloss over the drawbacks, it also pointed out the racism created by propaganda that portrayed Germans, Italians and especially Japanese as almost subhuman (as their propaganda portrayed us), how we trampled on constitutional rights (as with our internment of 120,000 Japanese) and the discrimination against African Americans in both civilian and military life.

D-Day

The section on D-Day explained the massive amount of mobilization (including six infantry and three aircraft divisions, 12,000 planes and 6,000 ships) and planning that went into the effort, its effects on British society, the elaborate rouses used to disguise plans for attacking at Normandy, and the critical, unpredictable role of weather in the last second go/no-go decision). It explained the roles played by American, British and Canadian forcing in taking each of their assigned beaches, the deadly perils they faced, the inland advances relative to goals, the huge rate of casualties (one of every 18 soldiers who left Britain that morning died) and the ultimately successful landing of 150,000 soldiers on to the heavily fortified coast in a single day. And, as fully portrayed, how the Allies had no contingency plan had the invasion failed!

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We left the museum as we had on our first two visits: In deep awe of the:

  • Incredible sacrifices that were made during the war
  • 85 million total people (including more than 50 million civilians) killed;
  • the ways in which Britain and the U.S. succeeded against all odds in maintaining democracy; and the
  • Unanswerable question of what the world would have been like had they failed.

Mardi Gras World

As most people know, Mardi Gras is a huge celebration in New Orleans. For the two months that precede Fat Tuesday,  dozens of Mardi Gras parades ply the streets of New Orleans and its suburbs. Not surprisingly, New Orleans has a museum on Mardi Gras which provides an interesting perspective on the history of some of the floats we have seen in previous Mardi Gras, and that we are likely to see in future ones.

Our visit began with a brief film that traced the history of the celebration from its 1657 beginning, through the formation of civic groups (called Krewes) that conceive, design, fund and man the thousands of floats and the millions of beads, cups, doubloons and other collectables they throw to anxious viewers.

From the first Krewe, Rex, though the big Super Krewes, beginning with Orpheus, there are now more than 50. Each stages a parade that can include dozens of floats, some of which are huge, extravagant and very expensive. Each year may have up to 500 floats with the figures and decorations costing tens of thousands of dollars apiece.

The tour examines the evolution of Mardi Gras floats through the eyes of Blaine Kern, the first artist who converted Mardi Gras float building from a passion into a business. After turning down a job with Disney to pursue his dream of living a perpetual Mardi Gras, he and his successors began building professional floats for the Mardi Gras krewes and expanded to creating all types of elaborate entertainment productions for the Disney Company, Las Vegas resorts and hundreds of other businesses.

We then toured one of the company’s warehouses, where we learned the process of moving from sketches to color drawings to models and then using giant computer-controlled robots to create Styrofoam foundations that will be covered with paper mache, painted and mounted on the huge floats, many of the nighttime floats which are then lit with fibre optic cables. The warehouse was filled with figures of hundreds of figures of real and imaginary people, animals and figures that adorn the giant floats as well as dozens of fully-assembled floats from previous years’ parades.

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The floats themselves, the large chassis and solid rubber tires on which each year’s floats are built, are owned and maintained by the krewes themselves. While Kern Studios makes figures and decorations that adorn these floats to the specifications of the krewes, it retains ownership of them. It, therefore, can reuse all of these designs, figures and decorations as is, by repainting or remilling and refinishing them, by reusing parts of one (such as a dragon’s wing), on a newly designed bird. The warehouse also has shelves filled with arms, legs, heads and other parts that can be reconditioned and reused as needed in future floats. (Although it does make some figures of longer-lasting fiberglass instead of styrofoam, these are much more expensive.

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The floats, of course, are just one component of the Mardi Gras experience. Each krewe member must make his or her own costume and buy their “throws”, the beads, doubloons and other giveaways that members dispense to the crowds.

This all translates into big business. Individual krewe member costs can exceed $1,000 per member for some parades, and this does not even guarantee a spot on the float. In the end, the money the krewes spend on staging the floats and that tourists pay (for hotel rooms, meals and so forth) to watch them, pump well over $1 billion per year into the New Orleans area community.

New Orleans Museum of Art

The museum provides a very high-level overview different styles of art, generally with a single gallery dedicated to periods and styles including Dutch, Flemish, Mesoamerican and Japanese, which are particularly well represented, in addition to Italian Baroque, 18th century France, Impressionism and Native American. It also had a couple interesting galleries of local Louisiana art and furniture.

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A larger, multi-gallery exhibit of 20th century art attempts to cover dozens of styles, from Cubism through Abstract Impressionism, Surrealism, Pop Art and so forth through one or two paintings, sketches or sculptures apiece.

It also hosted a couple of specially exhibits such as one of beaded prayer rugs, one of primarily neon light-based sculptures by Keith Sonnier and another that displayed and described the boost that a 1920-era line of imaginative, high-gloss “Fairyland Lusterware” provided for the then lagging Wedgewood ceramics company.

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Oak Alley Plantation

We took a one hour drive  to Louisiana plantation country to visit the huge plantation that was named for its quarter-mile lane surrounded by 28, 200-220 year-old Live Oaks.

While we had toured Laura Plantation on our last visit, this time we toured another, Oak Alley is older, larger and has a more varied history. Built in 1837, it has variously served as a sugar plantation, a rice farm, a chicken farm, a cattle range and a genteel country home. The home and its lands are now presented pretty much as it was during its live as a sugar plantation. Our visit included a guided tour of the mansion where we explored the first two floors that are furnished in period antiques.

The most memorable part of the home is the view of the eponymous alley—the quarter mile lane of huge, beautiful, mature oaks that huddle over the slave quarters up to the imposing, Greek Revival mansion. And alternatively, of the view of the alley from the second-floor porch. Although the interior is well appointed and has some interesting features, especially its lovely dining room complete with slave-operated dining room fan and the way the dried moss-filled mattresses were rolled each morning. Many of the mansion’s period appointments, however, were less interesting.

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We did, however, find some of the estates self-guided exhibits to be of interest:

  • The largest and most interesting of these is in the reconstructed slave quarters whose exhibits describe the lives of the 220 slaves that lived at the plantation. It explains the various classes of slaves, from skilled craftsmen and blacksmiths, through seamstresses, nurses, household slaves and the lowest class of field slaves. It explained the rigors of their work and the injuries and illnesses that befell them, the need for their own gardens to supplement their meagre rations, the tools and they used, their clothing, their religions and their punishments, including being sold “down the river” from upriver plantations to those with hotter climates and longer, more strenuous work seasons.

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  • The sugar house traces the history and evolution of sugarcane growing and refining with a film and displays that explains how the business operated in 1850 and how it has changed over the last 170 years.
  • Other smaller exhibits portray the type of plantation blacksmith shops and the ways in which they forged metal objects and the tent of a Civil War general.

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