Quick quiz: Think swinging jazz and soulful blues played in music clubs and by street musicians outside. Picture sidewalks crowded with people sipping beverages from plastic cups as they stroll along.
If you guess that describes New Orleans, you’re right – but there’s more.
Now see yourself visiting museums whose focus ranges from food and festivals to history and mystery. Where? New Orleans again.
Many visitors to “the Big Easy,” as it’s nicknamed, are on a quest for fun and frivolity, and both are there in abundant supply. For those seeking something a bit more educational but no less enjoyable, there’s also a fascinating history, rich cultural mélange, and attractions for people with a many interests.
Anyone seeking to delve below the surface of the city’s well-known appeals has
an inviting choice of museums that await exploration — nearly four dozen which span the alphabet from A (Art) to Z (Zoo). Together they offer insight into both aspects of New Orleans for which it is famous along with less-well-known but no less intriguing tidbits.
Now don’t get me wrong. During our recent visit my wife Fyllis I spent time walking along Bourbon Street, enjoying music both in bars and on street corners, and partaking of meals that will linger in our minds long after they’ve left our taste buds. But we also satisfied our curiosity at several museums that, we concluded, too many people may overlook.
A good place to being an exploration is The Historic New Orleans Collection. From its rather modest start, this institution has expanded to occupy 10 historic buildings on two campuses in the iconic French Quarter.
Exhibits present the history and culture of New Orleans, Louisiana and the entire Gulf of Mexico region. They document major historical events that have shaped the area as well as the everyday lives of people who passed through and settled there.
Guided tours provide in-depth information for those seeking more than a casual introduction, and changing exhibits offer insight into various aspects of the city’s and area’s story. I found two temporary exhibits which will last until the end of this year intriguing in very different ways.
“Giants of Jazz: Art Posters and Lithographs” includes 17 larger-than-life portraits by a famous 20th-century poster artists. Among legends depicted in the collection are Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald and Ray Charles, along with information about their ties to New Orleans.
“Storyville: Madams and Music” relates another, very colorful chapter in the story of music in the city’s past. Created in 1897, the Storyville neighborhood operated as a city-sanctioned red light district until 1917. Along with a number of brothels it attracted visitors with saloons, music and dance. Pioneering musicians who later went on to become famous played for tips.
The exhibit recalls this colorful time with photographs, oral histories and recordings. Holding center stage is a collection of pocket-sized directories known as “Blue Books” which presented Storyville as a luxurious playground of lavish mansions, fine music and elegant women. However, some items in the collection paint a very different picture of the reality.
Of course New Orleans is synonymous with Mardi Gras, the multi-day carnival, parade and excuse for over-eating and over-imbibing which has been celebrated there since the early 18th century. Two museums offer opportunities to experience the wonder of the festivities without the wildness.
Mardi Gras World is where floats for the parades in New Orleans and other locations around the world have been made since 1947. In a studio so vast it could almost have its own zip code, visitors see artisans constructing lavishly decorated floats literally from the ground up.
The scene is set in a video, followed by a taste of King Cake, a treat closely associated with Mardi Gras. This confection, which is believed to have been brought to New Orleans from France in 1870, is served throughout the carnival season.
During the tour, Fyllis and I felt like Lilliputians in a world of giants. We were dwarfed by much-larger-than-life likenesses of cartoon figures, movie personalities and fantasy creatures. Oversized animals and flowers the size of trees loomed over us.
A different take on Mardi Gras comes forth at the Backstreet Cultural Museum. Don’t let the nondescript exterior of the house that contains this collection put you off. The two rooms and hallways inside are jammed with memorabilia that pay homage to New Orleans’ African-American carnival traditions and celebrations.
Artifacts, photographs and films tell part of the story. Elaborate hand-sewn costumes line the walls, vying to overcome the viewer with their ornate decorations and variety of colors which challenge the largest box of Crayolas.
Some of the outfits pay homage to Native Americans, who are remembered for the assistance they once provided to slaves running away from their owners. I also spotted hints of Africa, voodoo and other references to African-American history and customs.
Speaking of voodoo, and folks in New Orleans often do, there’s no better place to explore and experience that mysterious combination of religion and superstition. It was transported there by slaves from West Africa in the early 18th century. I got my voodoo fix at New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum, a miniscule but mesmerizing collection which I found to be both educational and entertaining.
Visitors are overwhelmed by a haphazard jumble of paintings, sculptures, dolls, masks and other artifacts. One painting depicts a voodoo exorcism which took place around 1850. The Gris-Gris room displays objects used to invoke supernatural powers which, I learned, are rarely used for evil. Rather they seek to invoke such achievements as fortune, luck and love.
A hollow “wishing stump” is festooned with notes that people left, along with a money offering for their ancestral spirits. Other tokens of hope donated to please other-worldly beings include alcoholic beverages, cigarettes and chewing tobacco.
Three other museums which deal with vital facets of what makes New Orleans such a magnet for tourism rounded out our immersion. The aptly named Old U.S. Mint was built in 1835 and during its decades of operation produced millions of gold and silver coins. Today it displays treasure of a different kind, including instruments that were played by notable musicians and other memorabilia which traces the history of jazz from its humble beginnings on the city’s streets. Another feature is a series of free jazz concerts.
Only in New Orleans would there be a national park devoted to jazz, and the Jazz National Historical Park fills the bill. The Visitor Center is the place to start,
and it’s where jazz-related walking tours take off. The exhibits are not just about music but also local history, cultures, wetlands wildlife and food.
Food has top billing at the Southern Food & Beverage Museum, along with local beverages of the city and the South. There’s a separate exhibit area for each southern state, and the story of the various cultures that contributed to the region’s culinary heritage. The associated Museum of the American Cocktail, demonstrations by chefs and occasional tastings round out the menu.
Whether enjoying distinctive dining, listening to world-class jazz or checking out any number of other attractions, New Orleans offers a surprisingly complete menu of choices.
If you go. For more information, call (800) 476-1651 or log onto neworleans.com