Seeking The Unknown runs through June 2 in New Orleans
The landscape was exotic in their eyes, but none expected to discover rivers flowing with milk and honey.
Or natural springs whose water preserved youth.
But it would be interesting to ask if their expectations included big cats with bobbed tails, web-footed birds whose lower bill could serve as a pouch, or the angry turtle who, after almost 180 years, is still poised to attack.
It’s a fierce sight, this turtle, which is perhaps why the curators decided to place it at the beginning of The Historic New Orleans Collection’s exhibit, Seeking the Unknown: Natural History Observations in Louisiana.
The show runs through Sunday, June 2, in the collection’s Williams Gallery at 533 Royal St., New Orleans.
But the curators didn’t happen upon the turtle in New Orleans’ French Market. Charles-Alexandre Lesueur did that in 1834 while exploring and collecting the Louisiana territory’s natural wonders for France.
He’s one of several French naturalists and explorers who came to the territory in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. They combed the land, collecting plant and animal specimens along the way. And since inventions of laptop computers and iPads were at least two centuries away, they recorded their travels and findings in journals.
Yes, they used pens to write on paper. Many of the journals were catalogued and preserved by museums in their home country, and some are on display in this exhibit.
None of them writes about setting out to discover something magical. Well, not in the supernatural sense. But there is magic in the wonder of their discoveries.
“I have had leisure to study this subject, and have made such progress in it, that I have sent to the West-India Company in France no less than three hundred medicinal plants, found in their possessions, and worthy of the attention of the public,” Antoine-Simon Le Page du Pratz wrote.
He resided in and studied Louisiana between 1718 to 1734, and though he was trained in architecture and engineering, he put his talents to use drawing the territory’s seemingly exotic animals.
But Lesueur took an extra step. He caught an alligator snapping turtle, killed it, had it preserved and sent it to the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle, where it has been stored for 179 years.
“This turtle was captured in Louisiana, and now it’s back in Louisiana for the first time since 1834,” John H. Lawrence, director of museum programs at The Historic New Orleans Collection, said. “She was probably about 30 years old when she was captured, so she was hatched around the time the Louisiana Purchase was signed.”
Visitors definitely will halt upon seeing the turtle. She’s harmless now, true, but she has been preserved in attack mode.
And many of those same visitors, though curious, won’t be surprised by the sight of the turtle. They live in Louisiana, after all, and they’ve seen this before.
But Lesueur hadn’t.
“The curious nature of many of the naturalists and explorers of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries is something that never goes out of fashion,” Lawrence continued. This exhibition will give visitors a better understanding of what early explorers and scientists saw in Louisiana’s forests, swamps, rivers and shores.”
Lawrence also is co-curator of this exhibit with Gilles-Antoine Langlois of the National School of Architecture at Versailles, University Paris-Est Créteil.
The two joined in choosing objects that provide a broad historical background for early observations of the Louisiana landscape. Some of the pieces were selected from the collection’s holdings, while others are on loan from several state institutions, as well as four French archives.
Together, these pieces spotlight particular naturalists and explorers whose work was influenced in recording Louisiana’s natural history.
“With rare exception, the often groundbreaking work of these men was, during their lifetime, known to a relatively small audience,” Langlois wrote in his essay for the exhibition catalog. “They were unacknowledged collectors of scientific treasures, operating in the shadows, suffering fevers and other unimaginable hardships, rarely receiving widespread recognition or other acclaim. This exhibition finally brings some of their previously invisible work to light.”
“It’s a large overview,” Lawrence added. “We’ve focused on colonial Louisiana and colonial southeastern United States.”
He and Langlois walked through the exhibit on this Friday, the night before the show’s official opening. The collection’s annual symposium also was scheduled for the next day, its theme coinciding with that of the exhibit.
“Some of the pieces in this show are 300 years old,” Langlois said. “Some are being seen for the first time since their return from France.”
The alligator snapping turtle, of course, is one of those artifacts. And the turtle, along with the other pieces belonging to the Biblioteque Mazarine, Paris; Museum national d’Histoire naturelle, Paris; Archives nationales d’outre mer, Aix-en-Provence; and the Archives Nationales, Paris-Pierrefitte-Fontainebleau, will return to Frances after the show closes.
Meaning, visitors have at least two more months to see the Henri de Poilvain de Cresnay’s 1733 ink and watercolor map tracking the Mississippi River from its mouth to the Arkansas River and Jean Prat’s 1740 wax myrtle specimen.
OK, so wax myrtles don’t sound too exciting, but again, this exhibit isn’t presented through modern Louisianians’ eyes. It gives visitors an idea of what these early naturalists saw when going through the region and how they saw it. So much of it was new to them, and their explorations to gather it turned into adventures. And the final adventure belonged to Langlois as he researched museums and archives in Paris to make his own discoveries.
Langlois found hundreds of Louisiana-related items in museum archives, most of it still in pristine condition. The most difficult part of his job was whittling down hundreds of items to a few.
The result is a mix of plant and animal specimens, including a bobcat and cougar; along with several reptile specimens in jars collected in the 1830s and watercolors and illustrated folios, including several by John James Audubon.
In fact, the piece greeting visitors as they walk into the gallery is a first edition of volume 4 of Audubon’s Birds of America opened to the page of the web-footed bird with the pouch for a beak.
Specifically, plate 421 — “Pelicanus Fuscus”: the brown pelican.
The folio is on loan from LSU’s Hill Memorial Library. This is one of four volumes in the E.A. McIlhenny Collection that the library opens once a year to visitors on a single day, and it’s one of the few times it will be seen outside the library.
Audubon is included in this show because he not only was a painter but a French-American ornithologist and naturalist. Imagine his reaction upon seeing a pelican for the first time.
Imagine how exotic the bird must have seemed, how magical.
Think of explorer Charles Plumier’s wonder as he created his 1690 pencil and ink sketch of a pelican’s skeleton. He was investigating the area almost a decade before Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville’s expedition to the territory in 1699.
The sketch is part of the exhibit, as are so many other artifacts.
And for those wondering just how the plants were kept alive on ships during trips back to France, there are even 18th century illustrations and color plates of plant containers created especially for these expeditions.
The new world was just that — new.
And even the sight of an alligator snapping turtle was amazing.
Even today, that sight is still amazing. Scary, but amazing.
It’s a good starting point to get into the mind set of the explorers. They weren’t searching for milk and honey but for what was really out there.
And through the preservation of their work, Louisianians can view their environment in a different way.