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Exhibits in Cabildo take you back to the early days

New Orleans is filled with museums. Some have been there for time immemorial. Others pop up as interest in their special subject grows. This is just a small sampling of what New Orleans has to offer.


Anyone interested in the history of New Orleans should start at the Cabildo. Built between 1795 and 1799 to replace the original building that was destroyed by a fire in  1794, the Cabildo Is one of the most historically significant buildings anywhere in the country.

It originally served as the seat of government for the Spanish rulers of New Orleans. Later it was where the Louisiana Purchase deeding the entire Louisiana Territory from France to the United States was signed in 1803. Over its long life, it served as a city hall, courthouse and prison before becoming a museum in 1908. I have visited it many times and am always struck by the feeling of history that shrouds the old building. It's first floor showcases the inhabitants an history of New Orleans from the native people thought it's French then Spanish period and brief French re-rule when it then passed to the United States. It covers this history down to the modern era with wonderful artifacts and art.

One of the most unique artifacts there is one of Napoleon Bonaparte's death masks. There are only four genuine death masks in existence today. Of course the connection to the Cabildo is evident. Napoleon was the person who sold Louisiana to the United States under President Thomas Jefferson thus almost doubling the size of the country.


Fats Domino's Piano
Presbytere Museum

 "Living with Hurricanes: Katrina and Beyond," the exhibit on the first floor of the Presbytere is one of the most moving ones in the city. As I entered, my eyes were drawn to a single object in the center of the hall. Fats Domino's massive Steinway grand piano sitting on its side with the internal workings exposed. This is how it was found after it was washed out of Fats Domino's lower ninth ward home.

Looking up I saw the ceiling was covered with bottles with messages in them and glass in the shape of hands. The unusual art piece is called “Messages of Remembrances” by Mitchell Gaudet. The bottles represent the death toll of Katrina and the hands represent the help offered the citizens of New Orleans during its darkest days.

The exhibit is so poignant. It almost brought me to tears as I read the messaged on the garage door. "Dead dog do not remove owner wants to bury."

This says it all about the spirit of New Orleanans
That says a lot about the spirit of the citizens of New Orleans and their resolve to struggle onward no matter what. The sign notes two dead cats too. Of course, the human toll may never be confirmed or made public. So much was happening that those of us not there can never imagine. My family lost cars and had terrific damage to their homes as well. Even worse, I recently learned a former in-law had a nephew go missing during Katrina. He has never been heard from since.

Another highly moving section shows a diary written on a wall by Tommie Elton Mabry, a resident of the Cooper Housing Project who remained through the storm and afterwards with only his dog, Red, for companionship.  The diary, written with a black sharpie pen, filled four walls and covers the eight weeks from  the day prior to Katrina's strike onward. In it Mavbry related the everyday occurrences of life in a mostly abandoned and desolate New Orleans. Mabry survived his ordeal and died January 30, 2013.  The Cooper development was torn down three years later but the Louisiana State Museum managed to salvage the walls with the diary inscribed on it. It tells just of everyday events including his will to live on beyond this tragedy and help return his life to something approaching normal although, he states in one entry "…It will never be normal."

The exhibit ends on a positive note as the city, which still and probably always will, struggles to return to a semblance of normal.

The second floor exhibit relates to the more resilient side of New Orleans and chronicles the history of Mardi Gras. Incidentally, Mardi Gras was celebrated in New Orleans the year after Katrina. Nothing could stand in the way of the city's joyous celebration of their favorite holiday. Many of the costumes were made of blue tarps in honor of the many roof coverings throughout the city.

One of the mints huge machines
Old U.S. Mint

When I visited, the Old Mint was a busy place. The Satchmo  Summerfesti was in full swing there. For those of you not in the know, "Sacthmo" is Louis Armstrong, New Orleans favorite Jazz musician.

The courtyard was filled with venders and there was a great jazz band playing.The venders were seling typial New Orleans favorites like hot sausage po' boys, gumbo and sno balls. the bands were playing spirited jazz.

I bought a po' boy and a sno ball and watched as a few couples danced and the crwod swayed in time to the music. It was hard to tear myself away from the outside fun but eventually I did.

As I entered the into the old mint I reflected that this was truly a historic place not only  in the content of New Orleans but the entire country. It was the only mint to produce American and Confederate coinage.

Listing to a tribute to Satchmo
The mint was built in 1835 and used continually first by the United States and then for a short time by the Confederacy as a mint.

After the Civil War, control passed back to the Federal government and it resumed minting coinage for the United States until 1909. It was the only southern mint to reopen after the war.

Downstairs, the exhibits show the tools and techniques used to produce coins.

On the second floor, there is a great music exhibit very in keeping with the Satchmo Fest devoted to New Orleans jazz greats. Fats Domino's piano and Louis Armstrong's cornet were  the highlights for me. I was and am still a fan of both.



Luke explains the importance of the Irish Cultural Museum
Irish Culture Museum

This great little museum is a treasure trove of the history of the Irish in New Orleans. It's relatively new. 

I met with  Luke Ahearn, the manager,  who explained how the museum came to be. "It's been a lifelong dream of my father who is passionate about his Irish heritage."

They were shocked when the father, Mathew Ahern, a contractor, applied for permission to open the museum in the French Quarter at 933 Conti Street and was told by some bureaucrat, "I don't see that the Irish had any influence on the Vieux Carre."

Part of the Steinbeck exhibit
Fortunately wiser heads prevailed and the museum opened in October 2012. The museum uses the latest technology, interactive kiosks; static displays and exhibitions; archival photos, maps and newspaper clippings; a portrait collection; and a library.

Be sure to watch their award-winning documentary "Irish New Orleans" it is a real eye opener for those who are not familiar with the tremendous influence the Irish had on New Orleans. So many of the Irish became involved in the area of politics, an always colorful "sport" in New Orleans. For anyone from New Orleans, it is a nostalgic trip in time. For anyone not from there, it is a lesson in the art of politics, New Orleans style.

"Steinbeck: The Art of Fiction" was running as a temporary exhibit and I found it fascinating. I had not realized, Steinbeck was half Irish. His people came from a tiny hamlet in Derry County, Ireland called Mulkeraugh.

In 1052 he went back in search of his roots. In his novel, East of Eden published in September of 1952, one of his major characters, was based on his maternal grandfather who migrated from Ireland to American in 1949 and eventually set up a ranch in California. He used his grandfather's real name, Samuel Hamilton, in the story. The exhibit included sculptures and photos of objects, text and characters from Steinbeck's most popular works.


Magnificent Beauregard-Keys Home
Beauregard-Keys House

Another museum that features one of my favorite writers from years past as co-occupant of the home is The Beauregard-Keys Home on Charters Street. This is one of the city's older museums and I had visited it many times when I lived in New Orleans.

Built in 1826, the square American style home stands out from its closed courtyard style French neighbors in the Vieux Carre. It was built on land purchased form the Ursuline nuns who owned it along with the property across the street by Joseph Le Carpentier then moved on through a sucession of owners until author Francis Parkenson Keys purchased it in 1945. Upon her death, it became property of a foundation she founded to protect the historic home.

It's most famous resident, Pierre Gustav Toutant Beauregard, never owned the home. He lived in it after the war from 1865 to 1868 and spent his honeymoon with his second wife, Caroline, in the home in 1860.

In the parlor of Beauregard-Keys House
In her book, Madam Castel's Lodger, my personal favorite of all her works, Ms. Keys tells a fictionalized biography of Beauregard. Another of her books, The Chess Players, is a fictionalized biography of Paul Morphy, whose grandfather once owned the house. Morphy was a world chess champion who visited and stayed in the historic home during his childhood.

The parterre garden begun by Anais Mearle, wife of a Swiss conciliate, who lived in the home in the 1830s, is also part of the tour.

It's a fascinating place on many levels: historic, architectural, botanical and even cultural as the furnishings reflect both the period during which General Beauregard lived there and the mid 1900's  when Ms. Keys lived in it. The back apartment where she spent her later years is preserved as it was at the time of her death.  It's a good place to get acquainted with a lot of New Orleans history


One of the machines used in WWII

 National WWII Museum

This is one of the city's most impressive museums. It opened its doors on  June 6. 2000  as The National D-Day Museum. The mover and shaker behind this museum is none other than  Stephen E. Ambrose, author of the bestseller Band of Brothers and producer of the miniseries. In 2003, Congress named it America’s National WWII Museum.

This museum, along with the D Day Museum in Roanoke, Virginia, and the Lincoln County Historical Museum  is going to be a feature article in History Trail in the Spring issue so I am just going to tell you a tidbit about it here. Believe me that from the moment you step aboard the "train" that transports you into the museum until you step into the US Freedom Pavilion: The Boeing Center filled with trains, jeeps, and all the machinery that supported the fighting men, you will be mesmerized.

Confederate Musuem

Civil War Museum

Separated in time by almost three quarters of a century was another war that impacted the country. In distance the New Orleans museum commemorating this war is  just across the street from the WWII Museum.

The Civil War Museum is housed in Memorial Hall which was built in 1891. It's the oldest continuously operating museum in Louisiana.

The museum is filled with all kinds of Confederate artifacts from the lowliest private's uniform to a large portion of Jefferson Davis's personal possessions. Davis died in New Orleans on December 6, 1889  and 60,000 people came to pay their respects. Afterward, his widow, Varina, donated the current collection of her husband's things to the museum.

Personal exhibit in Confederate Museum
While the guns and swords are impressive, there are lots of other interesting items like the display of medicine as practiced during the Civil War.  A set of surgeons tools includes one item that looks a lot like a modern hack saw. Ouch! Then there are the personal papers and photographs. One exhibit is devoted to Katherine Walker Behan and her husband, William J. Behan. Katherine was personal friends with  Mary Custis Lee, Robert E. Lee's oldest daughter, and Varina Davis and has letters and papers relating to the war and later years. William fought with the Washington Artillery during the war and went on to become mayor of New Orleans after reconstruction.

If you are a history buff, this place is for you. 


Marie Laveau's portrait

New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum

Some things are unique to New Orleans. I doubt you will find another museum dedicated to the history of Voodoo anywhere else in the country. The museum was founded in 1972 by Charles Massicot Gandolfo.  Charles  was a good friend and a remarkable person: perhaps the most knowledgeable expert in the United States on the practice of  Voodoo  and its most well known queen, Marie Laveau.

His brother, Jerry, also an expert on the subject, runs the museum and offers other services such as cemetery tours and readings.  What makes this museum so important is not its size or setting. It is small and a bit dingy but it is authentic. This is not a tourist trap. It is a place where those seeking true knowledge of a religion that had been defamed by Hollywood and literature and shrouded in mystery since its emergence in this county, can go to learn what Voodoo really is all about. The artifacts are real. The knowledge behind the exhibits is extensive.

Example of a Voodoo altar
Be sure to note the painting of Marie Laveau that hangs in the front room of the museum. It is an original painted by Charles "Voodoo Charley" Gandolfo as a young man.

Ironically, like Marie Laveau, Charles was a multi-talented person. He was a hairdresser as well as an artist before he founded the museum.

No visitor to New Orleans  can ever hope to understand the complete culture of that mysterious city without a knowledge of what Voodoo is and how it evolved from the religion early Africans brought from their homeland and mingled with Catholicism.

Pharmacy Musuem sign

Pharmacy Museum

After visiting the Voodoo Museum, it's just a short walk to the Pharmacy Museum and it is amazing how much the two have in common. The downstairs portion of the museum is filled with old medicine bottles sitting on counters protected by curved glass covers. It really feels like I wondered into a time warp here.

The building is on the site of America's First Licensed Pharmacy owned by  Louis J. Dufilho, Jr. was the first to pass the states exam.

 I am so glad they still don't still use all these "medical" items like leeches and those cute little metal cups to collect blood from bloodletting. Some of the hypodermic needles are huge. Opium, coca (as in cocaine) and whiskey was regularly prescribed as medicine.

Pharmacy Museum filled with interesting potents and bottles
 Jerry Gandolfo from the Voodoo Museum told me this little tidbit."The pharmacy sold potions as well as medicine and some people didn't want it known what they were purchasing. So the potions were all designated by number. The love portion was number nine."

The building itself is worth the admission. Be sure to go upstairs and into the shady courtyard.  



Mardi Gras World

Say "Mardi Gras" and everyone thinks of New Orleans. Not many people think of the work and effort it takes to put on a world class spectacular event each year. One place represents that year round part of Mardi Gras more than any other in the world, Blain Kern's Mardi Gras World. This is where you can see Mardi Gras in action year round.  Since 1947, Blaine Kern Studios has built those stunning parade floats for Mardi Gras and lots of other events as well.  

I just visited Rock Ranch (see article) and loved the Chick fil A  chicken there. Blain Kern also built the four-story-tall cow that graces the Atlanta Braves baseball stadium. They build for such well known names as Universal Studios,  Walt Disney World, Toho Park in Japan and many other entertainment centers. But Mardi Gras is where it all began and the first focus of the company. No wonder Blain Kern is known as "Mister Mardi Gras."

This is a "living museum" as well as actual workshop  type of attraction rather than a classic museum but I am only giving you a sneak preview here as I am going to feature Mardi Gras World in Museum Row for the Winter Issue in January, 2015.


For more info:


Irish Cultural Museum

Beauregard-Keys House

Civil War Museum

Voodoo Museum

Mardi Gras World

Pharmacy Museum



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