WBR Museum exhibit relives young woman's 1900 European tour

You can imagine the eye roll, the dismissive tone in her voice and the tweet that will surely follow.

Except that there was no Twitter in 1900, only Aurelie “LeLe” Levert’s daily journal, which stated her feelings much better than 140 characters could.

And her indignant frustration was seething in this entry.

“I don’t know why they had to shut down all the museums,” she wrote of the closings due to the assassination of King Umberto I.

Even in 1900, she was a typical 20-something, sometimes selfless, other times self-absorbed.

Aurelie’s thoughts are expressed throughout the West Baton Rouge Museum’s exhibit, “A Louisianian’s Grand Tour during the Belle Époque,” which runs through July 20. The Belle Époque means “Beautiful Era” in French, which is generally described as a period in French and Belgian history dated from 1871 and ending with the beginning of World War I in 1914

And though Aurelie didn’t take photographs on her grand tour, items in this show are representative of the places she went, the things she saw.

Some are from the Exposition Universelle in Paris. Translate that into the 1900 World’s Fair, which featured the Grande Roue de Paris Ferris Wheel, Russian nesting dolls, escalators, diesel engines and talking films.

But one of the most significant new inventions of the day wasn’t given a prime spot in the fair.

“Alexander Graham Bell was given an upstairs room in a building,” says exhibit curator Lauren Davis. “He writes about that. He was so frustrated. The telephone really didn’t get a lot of attention until the end of the fair.”

It’s just one of the many facts visitors will learn as they travel alongside Aurelie.

“She grew up on St. Delphine Plantation in Addis, and she was 25 when she took this trip,” says Davis. “She, her older brother and younger sister met their cousin in New Orleans.”

The foursome took a train to New York, where they boarded the steamer L’Aquitane for Europe, where they not only would attend the World’s Fair and spend time in London but find themselves in Rome the day of King Umberto I’s assassination. Umberto’s reign began in 1878 and ended when Italo-American arachist Gaetano Bresci shot the king four times on July 29, 1900.

“And it’s kind of funny to read LeLe’s journal on that date, because she’s really irritated because they can’t visit any of the museums,” Davis says. “She just doesn’t understand why everything has to be closed down just because the king has been assassinated. She’s really a typical 20-something, even in 1900.”

Davis began working on the exhibit two years ago after reading the young woman’s journal. The Leverts are an old family in West Baton Rouge Parish, and Aurelie’s parents were wealthy enough to send their children on a European tour. Though the exhibit doesn’t have actual artifacts from Aurelie’s trip, save for a trunk marked “Levert,” Davis recreates the tour through items from the museum’s collection, along with those loaned by the New Orleans Museum of Art, the LSU Museum of Art and the LSU Textile Museum.

“The Levert trunk was already in our collection,” Davis says. “We don’t know if Aurelie used that trunk, but we know it belonged to her family.”

The trunk can be found at the beginning of the show, which moves on to artifacts that would have been found on the L’Aquitane.

“The L’Aquitane isn’t as big as the Titanic,” Davis says, pointing to a photo of the steamer.

But it definitely bares a resemblance to the British passenger liner that would be brought down by an iceberg 12 years later.

There is yet another reminder of the Titanic in this corner of the show.

“We have an engine order telegraph,” Davis says. “This is a communications device the pilot used to order engineers to power the vessel at certain speeds.”

The device is round with numbers filling its circumference.

“A bell goes off at each number,” Davis explains. “And if you remember in the movie, ‘Titanic,’ the bells kept going off when the pilot kept changing the numbers to slow down before hitting the iceberg.”

But the L’Aquitane safely made it to Europe, where Aurelie and her crew walked through the Universelle in Paris’ Palais Eletrique, the world’s first fully electrified building; rode Paris’ Metro and were introduced to new ethnicities through the exposition’s “human zoo.”

“France showed the different people in its colonies in natural setting exhibits,” Davis says. “This sparked anthropological studies.”

There were other things happening at the time. Claude Monet was painting landscapes at Giverny, art nouveau was the decorative rage and women weren’t stylish unless their outfits included a hat.

“We have some hats made especially for this show,” Davis says. “Visitors can pick them up and look at them. I’ve already tried one on.”