Tullos brings love of art, history to museum post

Mark Tullos has never told his mother about the time he sneaked out of training union for a chance to climb onto Bailey’s Dam.

Training union once was the nighttime version of Sunday school in Southern Baptist churches, and Tullos was walking into Emmanuel Baptist Church in Alexandria when he and his friends came up with the idea.

Bailey’s Dam was a timber dam on the Red River in Alexandria built in 1864 to afford passage over the river’s rapids for Rear Adm. David Dixon Porter’s fleet of ironclads and tinclads during Civil War.

The Red River was and still is regarded as one of the most unpredictable waterways in the world. Its water level dropped during the Union’s Red River Campaign through Louisiana, leaving the U.S. Navy stranded upon its return trip.

Union Lt. Col. Joseph Bailey of Wisconsin was called in to construct a dam that would raise the water level just enough to get the Navy fleet across the river’s rapids, for which Rapides Parish is named. Bailey was the chief engineer of the 19th Corps and had constructed dams in Wisconsin as a lumberman.

Bailey and Gen. Nathaniel Banks’ army used every piece of available timber to construct what is considered an engineering masterpiece for its time.

The nation watched as the dam was constructed. The feat was a success. And the dam could still be seen when river was low until the Red River Lock and Dam System was put into place in the 1980s.

But Congress issued the act to implement the system in 1968. And Tullos remembers sitting in Sunday school discussing how the lock and dam system would control the Red River water levels, thereby forever covering the timber dam.

“So, my friends and I decided to skip training union that evening to go to the river and walk on the dam,” Tullos said, laughing.

And his mother never found out.

“She’ll know now,” he said, laughing a little louder.

Will she lecture him? Well, probably not, because Tullos’ experience on Bailey’s Dam is one of the earliest examples of his lifelong love of Louisiana history, culture and traditions. It’s a story he related when being interviewed for the position of director of the Louisiana State Museum system.

It’s a story that illustrated to those interviewing him that Tullos isn’t just an “art guy.”

Tullos has spent the last 10 years as director of the Paul and Lulu Hilliard University Art Museum in Lafayette. Before that, he was director or executive director of the Alexandria Museum of Art, the Robert and Mary Montgomery Armory Art Center in West Palm Beach, Fla., and Art Center Waco in Texas.

That’s a lot of art museums.

“But I love history,” Tullos said. “And I see each piece as significant, whether it’s an art piece or a historical artifact. Each piece is valuable and tells its own story about Louisiana.”

Even a dam that’s underwater. Tullos may have been a kid, but he knew he was walking atop history, just as he now knows he walks through the state’s history each day.

And now Tullos will oversee probably the biggest, most comprehensive collection documenting Louisiana’s story when he officially begins his new job as assistant secretary of the Louisiana State Museum on Monday, Jan. 21.

Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne made the appointment after a lengthy search process. It’s his office that oversees the state museum system, and the search included a committee with representation from the Louisiana State Museum Board of Directors, the Louisiana Museum Foundation and the Friends of the Cabildo.

“Mark brings extensive experience in museum management and national accolades to the State Museum,” Dardenne said.

“His skill set, management style, energy, enthusiasm and personality will enable him to provide excellent leadership for our museum and to help develop a long term strategic plan for the system.”

Part of that plan will be partnering with local libraries to share the some 450,000 artifacts housed in the museum’s 11 sites with local communities.

It’s true that most of the museum’s sites are located in New Orleans. There also are sites in Baton Rouge, Thibodaux and Patterson with a new site opening in Natchitoches in the spring.

Historical artifacts continue to be collected, telling all aspects of the state’s story.

The Louisiana Purchase? It’s represented at the museum, as well as the Battle of New Orleans and Mardi Gras.

But the story also is told through the museum’s collection of textiles and fashion, jazz instruments, maps and documents and, when the museum at Natchitoches opens, the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame.

“I’m going to be visiting the museum in Natchitoches next week,” Tullos said.

He said this while visiting a local restaurant after meeting with Dardenne two days after the New Year’s holiday. Tullos is as familiar with Baton Rouge as he is his childhood home of Alexandria.

His family moved to Baton Rouge when he was a teenager, and he eventually graduated from Baton Rouge Magnet High School and LSU.

All to say that he is familiar with different parts of the state.

Tullos also has served the museum community as a member of the honors committee and a peer reviewer for the American Alliance of Museums, a panelist for the National Museum Service Board and a member of the state arts councils of Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas and Florida.

“I’ve never ventured out of the South,” he said.

And now he plans for the future. He will move to New Orleans, while his wife Susan finishes out the spring semester in her job at the Cecil J. Picard Center for Early Childhood Development, an educational research center at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

The couple has four adult children, the youngest being 18-year-old ULL freshman Madeline.

Meanwhile, under Tullos’ leadership, the Hilliard Museum was recognized as an innovative university museum, sharing collections nationally and in 2011 was recognized by the Giacometti Foundation in Paris for protecting art and artist rights.

Sharing the Hilliard’s collection with other institutions was a successful program.

“And I know we can partner with local libraries to share the state museum’s collection throughout the state,” Tullos said. “Not everyone is going to make it to New Orleans to see what the museum has. When you talk to some children, they’ve never traveled far from their towns. Imagine watching a kid’s face in Ferriday, La., the first time they see Napoleon’s death mask. He may never get to see Napoleon’s death mask, otherwise.”

That’s probably one of the best-known artifacts in the museum’s collection, but there is so much more.

“I think we can share our history with communities throughout the state,” Tullos said.

“It’s their museum, and if we partner with libraries, we can share our shared passion for telling this story.”

It’s a story that never stops. Tullos knew this when he skipped training union in Alexandria. He knew that his own history was mixing with Louisiana’s when he ventured out on Bailey’s Dam. And looking back, he knows that Louisiana’s story with the Red River Lock and Dam System began when the dam was relegated to a watery grave. The state’s history never stops, and now Tullos will do his part in telling it.

Mom should be proud.