Museum’s exhibits on Iberville ethnic groups proves hit

Sometimes the grandest project starts out as the smallest idea, as Rita Lynn Jackson, project director for the “People of Iberville” exhibits that have graced the Iberville Parish Museum since 2008, can attest.

Jackson described for members of the Baton Rouge Genealogical and Historical Society Saturday how what started out as a simple idea to entice more people to visit the Iberville Parish Museum turned into a six-year, award-winning series of exhibits that touched on the nine ethnic groups that shaped Iberville Parish.

“That is how it was born,” Jackson said.

Jackson told the nearly 20 members at the society’s monthly meeting at the East Baton Rouge Parish Library’s Bluebonnet Branch how she and museum staffers built each exhibit around antiques, family heirlooms and clothing area residents brought in to commemorate each of the different ethnic groups’ contributions to the parish.

The Daughters of the American Revolution thought so much of her efforts that it bestowed upon Jackson its Historical Preservation Award.

Each exhibit was meticulously cataloged and photographed in case the museum decides to bring them back, because most of the items had to be returned to families following the close of the exhibit.

“I learned as I went,” Jackson said. “I had the idea of what to do, but I learned so much more history and met wonderful people along the way.”

She decided they would first try to build an exhibit about the history of the African-American community in the parish and they would do it by reaching out to old local churches for antiques and records they kept of the first settlers in the area.

“It was a place of social gatherings. It was a place where they got an education. It was their core,” Jackson said of a person’s connections to their church.

She approached the museum board in November 2007 with the idea, which it approved. The board then told her it wanted her to have something ready to go up three months later.

But Jackson knew the research would be painstaking and that she would need more time to put it together, so she switched gears and decided to start off with an exhibit on Italian culture to coincide with St. Joseph’s Day in March, a sort of Italian holiday.

She tried placing ads in local newspapers to get people to donate items for the museum but got no response. So she began reaching out, meeting people and forging personal relationships with the Italian-American community. That led to people opening up and donating items for the exhibit.

One side effect of the exhibits, Jackson learned, was that she was not only gathering items for the exhibits but was helping families learn their genealogy in the process.

“People were so excited,” she said.

After finishing the hugely popular Italian exhibit, she moved on to the Spanish exhibit and the exhibit that the “People of Iberville” series was hatched for — the African-American exhibit.

“I cannot tell you how thrilling it was,” Jackson said. “These people were bringing antique furniture from their churches.”

The German exhibit came next, followed by the Anglo-Scots-Irish and French exhibits.

Jackson said she purposely did the French exhibit second to last because of the sheer amount of information, people and items she knew she would need to tell the story of the French in Iberville Parish.

Last in the series was the exhibit on the American Indians, which included a pow-wow.

The lasting legacy of each exhibit is a hanging display, featuring a short history of each group’s history in the parish.

The program’s success could be seen as the series went on over the months, with larger crowds walking in and more money flowing in from donations as each new exhibit went up.

“It turned out more than I ever dreamed of,” Jackson said.