Unique mobile museum honors Louisiana women

History exhibit created by UL-Lafayette graduate students

A group of University of Louisiana at Lafayette graduate students created a unique museum exhibit this semester that’s going places — literally.

As part of a new project of the university’s public history program, the students created the first exhibit — on influential Louisiana women — for the Museum on the Move, a 1954 Airstream travel trailer stripped down and converted into a mobile museum.

The museum makes its debut at 4:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Alumni Center with its inaugural exhibit, “Crossing the Line: Louisiana Women in a Century of Change.” Tours will continue until 7 p.m.

The exhibit featuress 10 Louisiana women from the late 19th century to the present who created extraordinary change in the state, said John Troutman, a UL-Lafayette associate professor of history whose students created the exhibit as a class project.

“We wanted to create a hands-on, professional experience for students,” Troutman said. “They’ll be able to walk away from this with experience in museum exhibit creation on their résumé.”

Troutman said he learned about the mobile museum concept at a conference, and funding to make the idea a reality became available through the support of a fund created by the late James Guilbeau.

The 23-foot Airstream cost about $10,000 and a local contractor, John Steinman, helped transform the space into a museum. All the retro comforts of the 1954 travel trailer were replaced with wood flooring and industrial framing to accommodate museum panels.

On Friday, students Eric Scott and Daniel Manuel installed the exhibit panels that held a brief synopsis of the major contributions of the women selected for the exhibit, which includes environmentalist Wilma Subra, of New Iberia, and Louisiana’s first female governor, Kathleen Blanco.

The exhibit is based on research provided by students in a Louisiana Women course taught by history professor Mary Farmer-Kaiser. Troutman’s students pared down the list of 40 women to 10 after focusing on a theme of activism. The exhibit features four areas the women were instrumental in:

POLITICS: Blanco and the late Lindy Boggs, the first Louisiana woman elected to Congress and a former U.S. ambassador.

ENVIRONMENT: Subra and the late Caroline Dormon, a botanist and conservationist.

EQUAL RIGHTS: the late Ollie Tucker Osborne, a women’s rights activist in the 1970s; the late Georgia M. Johnson, a civil rights activist from Alexandria; the late Oretha Castle Haley, a civil rights activist from New Orleans; and the late Sarah Towles Reed, who fought for equal pay for female teachers and founded a teacher’s union in New Orleans in the 1920s.

PROFESSIONS: the late Eliza Nicholson, believed to be Louisiana’s first female newspaper publisher, and Rowena Spencer, believed to be the state’s first female surgeon and first pediatric surgeon.

The museum will begin making visits to middle schools in the spring, targeting eighth graders studying Louisiana history. The plan is for the museum to make the rounds at festivals and other events across the state, too, he said.

Also, as part of the project, students created teaching tools for teachers to build lesson plans around a visit to the Museum on the Move.

“It’s been a good learning experience. We’ve had to design it, write the text, consider all the technical aspects, like where to put the lights,” said graduate student Adrienne Stratton.

Because of the targeted outreach to middle schools, the graduate students had to consider their primary audience when writing the text for the panels, said graduate student Connie Milton.

“We had to make sure it was readable to an eighth grader,” Milton said. “We also wanted to make sure it was an interactive exhibit.”

At the end of the exhibit, visitors will be able to share the name of an activist in their community and write the name on a white board.

“We’ll take a photo and post the picture on our website,” Milton said.

The exhibit features a few artifacts, such as the backpack Blanco used as she traveled the state to survey the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005 and the parasol she carried during the second line celebration of the New Orleans’ Saints’ first home game in the Superdome following Katrina. One of Blanco’s “Queen Bee” pins is also part of the exhibit.

An introductory panel in the exhibit asks visitors to reflect on how they define activism and if they can think of people in their community who were or are working to effect change.

“You don’t have to be a politician to create change,” Troutman said. “That’s what we want people to think about in our exhibit.”

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For information about Museum on the Move, visit museumonthemove.omeka.net.