Tulane exhibit offers rare look at La. history, culture

Visitors to Tulane University’s Louisiana Research Collection enter a cool and dimly lit room, quiet and sparse except for the selection of glass-encased rarities drawn from the collection’s vast paper archive of Louisiana history and culture.

“The Treasures of Tulane,” on exhibit through Friday at Jones Hall, was prompted by the university’s latest acquisition, a commission signed by Abraham Lincoln that elevated New Orleans-based Union officer John Wesley Turner to the rank of major general in 1865.

The free public exhibition came about, said collection head Leon Miller, after a recent visit by the Society of American Archivists. Tulane hosted a reception where the items were featured, and decided to keep them out an extra week.

“The documents are kept in a special security area and are rarely seen,” Miller said. “We left them out for the rest of the city to see.”

The exhibition offers a glimmer into the scope of the Tulane collection, which, Miller said, would fill four miles of shelving.

It includes the first document in the collection: A letter from Thomas Jefferson detailing his plans to help bail out his broke friend, the Marquis de Lafayette.

Also included is Stonewall Jackson’s Book of Maxims. As a young man, the future Confederate general set out to pen maxims based on themes such as “humility” and “chastity,” explained Miller, who then pointed to a page on display and wryly noted the absence of any maxims devoted to chastity.

The collection also includes Jefferson Davis’ and Lindy Boggs’ papers. Its strength, Miller said, is its span across all aspects of Louisiana culture and history — there are collections devoted to horticulture, women’s issues, ecology, civil engineering, and Carnival.

“The problem we have is people think we are a historical research center,” Miller said. “We don’t slant toward history. These materials are used by people in ways we can’t even imagine.”

The exhibit includes selections drawn from a 5,600-item strong collection of ephemera from the “Golden Age” of Carnival, generally held to have lasted from around 1870 to 1930.

A packet of Art Nouveau artifacts from the 1900 Comus Ball — dance cards, ball tickets, and other artifacts — is arrayed alongside an artist’s design of an 1884 Proteus float.

Also on display is a letter from novelist John Kennedy O’Toole, who wrote his parents from San Juan, Puerto Rico, in 1963 with the news that his manuscript was coming right along — and that he had no intention of going to law school.

That manuscript would become “A Confederacy of Dunces,” published in 1980, more than a decade after O’Toole committed suicide.

His 1981 Pulitzer Prize for literature sits poignantly alongside the letter to his parents.

Other documents include a schematic of what would become the Huey Long Bridge, signed by Long, and a letter from George Washington tapping John Jay to be the first chief justice of the Supreme Court.

The Lincoln letter was donated by a New Mexico-based relative of Turner’s and is notable in that Lincoln signed his full name instead of his usual practice of simply using his first initial, Miller said.

“The history is already written,” said Miller, as he explained the signature’s import and Turner’s military career, which included a leading role in forcing the Confederacy surrender at Appomattox. “Our role is to provide a sanctuary for the letter.”

Miller spoke of his mission to connect the collection with New Orleanians who might be “intimidated by special collections” or simply unaware that a great archival trove of documents and ephemera is at hand.

“The problem of the Louisiana Collection is that the further you get away from New Orleans, the more well-known we are,” he added.

“If you’re from Rome and you’re doing research on the Civil War, at some point you’ll come here. Often, people in New Orleans don’t know to come here.”

Editor’s note: This story was changed on Aug. 21 to correct the author of the Book of Maxims. The book was written by Stonewall Jackson, not Andrew Jackson.