Life as the textile expert at a regional history museum

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Clara's Busy Fortnight- Part III: New Orleans Museums

On my last day in New Orleans, I skipped the conference and visited three museums. Here is the rundown:

I’ve never been to the Deep South before, so I figured I should go for the full experience. So first up, I went to Confederate Memorial Hall

No photos were allowed inside

It was pretty sad, but not in the way I was expecting. I pictured something that had a whiff of modernity to it but that still had a clear Confederate apologist slant.  But it turned out to be one of those waaay old-style museums that maybe hadn’t been updated since its inception in the 1890s. (The handout I received at the front door still boasted about the highest attendance day in the museum's history: May 1893). The displays featured piles of random stuff arranged in glass-and-wood cases with labels printed on slips of paper. In several cases the glass was so warped with age that it was hard to read the labels. Because of the long-term display, the condition of most of the artifacts was pretty bad. It was particularly grim to see the state of the textiles: the wool had moth holes, the silk was shattering to bits, and hats were sagging and tearing on insufficient supports. 

In the gift shop, things went from "oh, what a sad little museum" to "I don't think they are selling these confederate flags ironically." Most bizarre was the fact that you could buy a bootleg copy of the controversial Disney movie Song of the South, which has never been released on home video in the US because it is really really racist. The text on the DVD case promised that it was good, family entertainment. 

Next, I went on a pre-scheduled AHA tour of the Historic New Orleans Collection -- a history museum in the heart of the French Quarter.

I found this image on the internet. I'm not sure I actually saw this room, but the whole place basically looked like this.

It was a lovely museum but it was very...dry. The artifacts in the core New Orleans history exhibition were nearly all maps, documents, and paintings. Everything was very beautiful and had this old-world elegance to it, but it was probably exactly the kind of thing that people picture when they make statements like "history is boring." 

For a while I tried to be a good historian and get invigorated by signatures on documents related to the Louisiana purchase, but at some point I realized that if I left right away I would still have time for one more museum. 

My final pick was The Presbytere, one of several museums associated with the Louisiana State Museum. Their main exhibit was about Hurricane Katrina, and it was really really good. I cried. I'm tearing up a little just thinking about it now. It used video clips, oral histories, photographs, and interesting (not beautiful) artifacts to tell a story that was pretty emotionally devastating. 

Fats Domino's piano, displayed exactly as it was found in his home after Katrina

During my visit to New Orleans I heard locals talk about Katrina and how in some ways they felt abandoned by the rest of the country--not just in terms of aid, but in how other Americans felt and talked about it. Hurricane Katrina didn't resonate with people in the same way that something like September 11th did. The general response (and I was certainly guilty of this too) was a feeling of "That's terrible, but this doesn't affect me personally because I'm not from there." Whereas New York has a symbolic pull for a lot of Americans, a city like New Orleans is treated as distant and foreign.  The Katrina exhibition was amazing because it gave me an emotional connection to a place I'm not from and an event I didn't live through. All history museums should strive to create experiences like that. 

1 comment:

  1. Wow, I thought you were going to say the first museum was stuck in the 1970s, which is my usual experience. D: