A new museum in the wetlands: Annette Sisco column for April 4, 2013

A famous pirate, a walk in the wetlands and a talking alligator are among the highlights of a museum opening this weekend in Jean Lafitte.

Lafitte’s Barataria Museum and Wetlands Trace holds its grand opening from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, with Cajun music, food and free admission. The museum is housed in the town’s Multi-Purpose Center, 4917 City Park Drive.

It’s not a bad reason to drive to Jean Lafitte, whose fishing lifestyle and moss-veiled lanes make it seem much farther away than the hour or so it takes to get there from New Orleans.

“This museum is a living exhibit, the story of the fishermen and trappers who have called Barataria home for generations,” exhibition designer Gordon Linge said.

“Many of these residents are descendents of fishermen and trappers who, for a period of time after the Louisiana Purchase to the Battle of New Orleans, worked with the pirate Jean Lafitte,” he said.

Barataria was Lafitte’s realm, Linge said, the back door to New Orleans.

“The wetlands was very thick and lush back then, and the maze of bayou routes was very confusing to most people,” he said.

Lafitte counted on the locals for navigation through the marsh.

Displays include cannonballs scooped from the marsh and a rifle used at the Battle of New Orleans, he said.

Exhibits in the museum come from the former Louisiana Marine Fisheries Museum provided by the Louisiana secretary of state, the Louisiana Wildlife & Fisheries Collection from the original Louisiana State Museum in the French Quarter and Jean Lafitte’s special historical collection. There’s a Lafitte skiff, crab traps, handmade model boats and shrimp nets, and a documentary showing the way pirogues were carved from logs in the 1940s.

And Guy NaviGator, a custommade, animatronic alligator in shrimp boots, tells stories about the people and their customs, he said.

Outside the museum, visitors emerge to a mile-and-half-long trail through the cypress swamp, where wildlife and native plants thrive.

A big part of the museum’s story is the loss and recovery of the marsh, bruised by logging and the oil industry and battered by hurricanes, Linge said. The museum itself, in the works for 10 years, was delayed by six storms and the BP oil disaster.

But the exhibit’s message is one of hope.

“The ultimate goal is that people need to become aware of the coastal reclamation and land loss,” Linge said. “But a positive outcome is what we are projecting. People don’t want to move; this is their home. ... The young people want to stay there, but they can’t make a living like their parents and grandparents did.”

Instead, the museum predicts that today’s young people will have an active role in saving the marsh, Linge said.

“This generation is putting back what their parents and grandparents took away,” he said.

For more information, call Jean Lafitte Town Hall at (504) 689-2208.

Annette Sisco is community news editor. She can be reached at asisco@theadvocate.com or (504) 432-9257.