WBR Museum exhibit a crowd-sourced bicentennial celebration
Pick a corner, any corner.
They’re all good for an old-fashioned stake out. Now, try not to appear too conspicuous. Take in a few exhibit cases in the gallery while the visitors make their way around the room at the West Baton Rouge Museum.
You might see some tools used by the ancient inhabitants at Poverty Point or Mardi Gras memorabilia from New Orleans and southwest Louisiana.
And just when the visitors approach the gallery’s far, back corner, you’ll almost be guaranteed a show.
Because most of them come to a standstill upon approaching the case filled with Louisiana sports memorabilia. They lean over the case for a better look.
Then they step back and look at their feet. Some even raise a foot to knee level while looking into the case, all the while trying to make a comparison — sizing up their shoes against Shaq’s.
Better make that singular, because only one of Shaquille O’Neal’s high top game shoes is on display in the West Baton Rouge Museum’s exhibit Louisiana’s Top 200! A Bicentennial Celebration.
But a single shoe is enough. It’s caused a stir among elementary school classes touring the exhibit. And it’s a safe bet that most of these kids wouldn’t know about O’Neal’s connection to LSU.
This is the point of this exhibit, especially in how it was put together. It celebrates Louisiana’s 200th year of statehood not only by reaching back into its earliest history but by looking at the people, places and events in the present.
“There are things in this exhibit for people of all ages,” said Lauren Davis, the museum’s curator. She’s spent two years using surveys and social media to sample public opinion on what residents considered the most notable people, places, products and events in the state’s history. This method is called crowd sourcing.
The incoming suggestions exceeded Davis’ limit of 200, so much that she had a tough time in the elimination process. Because, really, Louisiana can’t be defined by a single idea or object. It’s a state whose multiple personalities constantly shift during a single journey from north to south, east to west.
“The crowd sourcing has led to a rich exhibit filled with art, history, sports, food, music, personalities and a variety of Louisiana trademarks that make our state truly unique,” Davis said. “While some visitors may not remember Edwin Edwards’ campaigns for governor, they’ll definitely remember the BP oil spill in the Gulf. They can walk through the gallery and learn things that happened in the past but also say, ‘Oh, I remember that.’”
And this is when they realize that they’re part of the state’s history.
It’s a history that includes everything from the Acadians’ baptismal record book covers from Quebec to an autographed photograph of two alligator-hunting descendants of those Acadians.
From an original Edgar Degas print to a chef’s hat worn by John Folse.
From a “Votes for Women” body banner to one of the shoes that NBA great Shaquille O’Neal wore while playing basketball for the LSU Tigers.
That was from 1989 to 1992. He wears a size 22, by the way.
Not unusual if your height is 7-feet, 1-inch, but very unusual if you’re a regular-sized visitor to the West Baton Rouge Museum.
The shoe is on loan from the LSU Athletic Department’s Jack and Priscilla Andonie Museum. Other artifacts are on loan from The Historic New Orleans Collection, the Diocese of Baton Rouge, the LSU Museum of Art, Jean Lafitte State Historic Site, the Louisiana State Museum, the LSU Department of Geology, Poverty Point State Historic Site, LSU’s Hill Memorial Library, the Foundation for Historical Louisiana, the LSU Natural History Museum, the Ursuline Convent Archives, the Angola Museum, the Southern University Archives, the Paul and Lulu Hilliard University Art Museum, John Folse and Co., the Louisiana Art & Science Museum, Tulane University and private lenders.
Now, not all of the Top 200 is represented by artifacts. Then again, it really wouldn’t be possible to assign, say, Fats Domino or James Carville a spot in the gallery for the duration of the exhibit.
And Britney Spears? Well, she’s too busy preparing for a stint as a judge on The X Factor.
Yes, all of these Louisiana personalities are recognized in the exhibit, as well as key places and events. They are represented by labels and photographs along the gallery walls.
They’re not placed in chronological order, so visitors really never know what’s coming next. A label describing the 1965 devastation of Hurricane Betsy can be hanging next to a photograph and history the state’s Cajun music legend Dewey Balfa.
Or the history of the Revolution of 1768 will be found by a label commemorating the state’s first Walmart. That store opened its doors in 1970 in Ruston.
And somewhere along the way, a label documenting John F. Kennedy’s 1959 reign as grand marshal of the Rice Festival in Crowley next to one commemorating Bobby Jindal’s election not only as Louisiana’s but the nation’s first Indian-American governor.
Still, the question remains: how do you whittle 200 years of history into 200 representative subjects?
Well, Davis began dividing subjects into categories.
Politics, for instance, is one of the state’s hot subjects, and visitors are given access to its most powerful political figure through an unlikely object.
“One of our key pieces is this quilt,” museum director Julie Rose said. “In was put together in Belcher, La., in 1930.”
The quilt was used as a fund-raiser. Passersby could sign a panel corner for a nickel. Once all of the panels were filled, the signatures were embroidered, and the panels were sewn into a quilt.
After that, the quilt was auctioned to the highest bidder, which happened to be Denham Springs resident Martha Landry’s mom.
“She paid $6 for the quilt,” Rose said. “And what makes this quilt special is right here.”
Rose stepped closer to the quilt, pinpointing a particular panel. It seems that Huey P. Long and Oscar K. Allen were two of the passersby who offered up nickels for a chance leave their signatures behind that year.
Long was running for the U.S. Senate that year. Allen would succeed Long as Louisiana’s governor. Louisiana politics involved an extensive grassroots effort in those days, and Long played the game well.
Because, who knows how many votes were bought by that nickel?
Long also is represented by a funeral program and sheet music for “Darling of LSU,” which he co-wrote with Castro Carazo, his hand-picked director for the LSU Tiger Marching Band.
Of course, Long’s brother, Earl, is represented, along with Gov. Jimmie Davis, who wrote the state song, “You Are My Sunshine.”
Then follow the other categories: religion, music, food, sports, war, Mardi Gras, Native Americans and civil rights.
The list almost sounds like food staples, for the state would be malnourished without most of them.
Take religion, for instance. Viewers will see just how deeply it flows in Louisiana when looking at the case filled with Acadian artifacts. What seems to be ancient ledgers dominate this part of the exhibit, each with handwritten French titles.
“When the British ran the Acadians out of Quebec, they went to the church and grabbed their baptismal records and brought them here,” Rose said. “They were housed first at the Catholic church in St. Gabriel. Now, they’re housed at the Diocese of Baton Rouge.”
The diocese would not loan out the ledgers’ contents, but it did allow the museum to borrow the covers. And that’s enough, because this is where Acadian history starts in Louisiana.
And the autographed photo of Troy and Jacob Landry on the wall behind the case not only is a testament to the popularity of Louisiana alligator hunting on national television but to the Acadian legacy.
For the Landrys carry on a family tradition through their craft, television or not.
“I met them at an event in Plaquemine,” Davis said. “I asked if they would sign the picture and told them they were going to be in a museum exhibit. Troy said, ‘A museum exhibit? But I’m not old enough to be in a museum exhibit.’”
She laughed. Getting the autographs was fun, as was seeking out the many artifacts in this show.
Artifacts such as the presentation sword that belonged to a British officer during the Battle of New Orleans and a cornet played by jazz musician Sharkey Boneno.
And a costume worn by a reveler during a southwest Louisiana courir du Mardi Gras celebration and a Civil War era Springfield rifle.
Of course, no Louisiana celebration would be complete without paying tribute to New Orleans’ 2010 Super Bowl victory, and a football bearing all the signatures from that team does just that.
Shackles from a 1719 slave ship are a reminder that not all history is celebratory yet shouldn’t be forgotten. And a gumbo pot with recipes is a reminder that the state has — and continues to — produce some of the nation’s best food.
The Great Flood of 1927 is remembered through silent film footage, and LSU’s beginnings are recalled through a reproduction of a letter written by its first president — one William Tecumseh Sherman.
Yes, the same Union general who torched Georgia during the Civil War. His name isn’t found on any building on campus. But his name is a part of Louisiana’s 200 years.
As are the other items here. A shrimp trap, D-Day maps rescued by a local soldier, a shovel that broke ground for construction of the Superdome, a signed document of the Supreme Court’s Plessy v. Ferguson decision, artifacts representing Louisiana’s four Indian nations, a drawing of Louisiana native and famed heart doctor Michael DeBakey’s roller pump invention for the artificial heart, books by Louisiana authors and a painting of a free woman of color wearing her traditional turban.
Quite a list, right? Well, that’s only scratching the surface. Because there’s even more to see here, some of it representing history that has happened in current Louisianians’ lifetimes.
History like watching Shaquille O’Neal seemingly fly from mid-court in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center to sink a ball in the net.
Launched into space by those size 22 shoes.