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  • Writer's pictureErin Salthouse

New Orleans Museum review

While I was in New Orleans for the AAM conference I had a bit of time to see some of the sights.

The Historic New Orleans Collection, The Pharmacy Museum, and even the carriage ride and cemetery tour!

The HNOC is an archival library, a museum, and a publisher. This review is of the new interactive gallery and the main museum. I walked briefly through a contemporary art installation (art of the City: Postmodern to Post Katrina, presented by the Helis Foundation) as well. This was not the main purpose for my visit and I can only say the labels were clear, the items were well spaced in the gallery, and had I more time on another day I would go back to see it.

The Interactive Gallery

We had just completed a pre-conference workshop learning about the struggles involved with creating this gallery and it was fascinating to have inside knowledge and walk through the space imagining one's self as a visitor. The exhibits were large, bright, and inviting. I could imagine both children and adults enjoying the area, especially with so many sensory elements. There was a touchable deerhide, scent bottles related to the landscape and history of New Orleans, close captioned video, traditional vitrine, and a "telescope" that used vr to allow you to "spy" on historic domestic servants through the window.

My criticisms: I have to say this last element was my least favorite. There was no context about who or when you were looking at, and the viewer could only be seen from a standing position- it was not adjustable nor accessible. This space had a few steps and was a bit narrow, in an odd corner or the building. Already the gallery has to work against the space to seem significant.

My accolades: Overall it was an inviting and interactive space. I look forward to the installation of an intended curio table, featuring drawers you could open to explore more items. I think that it is the best it could be considering the limitations of the space and the hiccups during the design and implementation process. I hope the space is successful and I hope it inspires the HNOC to intersperse hands on elements throughout the entire museum.

The Core Exhibit and immersive film experience

I heard about this museum on the podcast "Sawbones: a Marital Tour of Misguided Medicine" and I was crushed when I couldn't go in on Tuesday. However, I appreciate that museums need to have their own "weekends" and so I came back the next day to see it with my friend (also a museum professional). I am so glad I came!

My criticisms: The Pharmacy museum's building, structurally, is... precarious. Definitely not ADA accessible as most of the variety in displayed artifacts is on the second floor. I talked to the front desk staff, who said the building was owned and upkept by the city. This explains, perhaps, the poor temperature control and the uneven floors. It is very possible that an occupied, historic, and deteriorating building is very difficult and expensive to repair. However, the cases holding artifacts were not up to scruff by most museum standards. This is a shame as the collection and presentation is excellent. Also, the cramped space made labels an interesting challenge. Clearly the label writers had no respect for large font nor word limits of any kind. This, rather than providing essential context to the visitor and answering all their questions, made it difficult to navigate and identify what the objects were and encouraged reader exhaustion. I was looking forward to this particular museum as a highlight of my trip, I have some medical history knowledge, I work in museums, and even with all that I couldn't finish reading a single label in the museum. I still had a great time. And I have never been so grateful for a wall text orientation of the theme and artifacts (there were a few on the second floor). I can imagine with a bit of extra funding how incredible this museum will be. Not to say the quirky, dusty, grandma's creepy attic vibe needs to change. But this can be accomplished while also better preserving the artifacts, supporting the visitors, and making the content accessible.

My accolades:

Some encouraging efforts on the part of the museum were an art installation interspersed on the second floor showing medical procedures, and a gift shop.

The art installation, Source and Specimen by Taryn Möller Nicoll brings freshness to a very archaic space and makes it clear that despite the conditions, someone cares about this collection (and it encourages the visitor to do so as well). I've seen art installations in a few historic houses as well and I think it is a fantastic way to showcase artists and enliven a space with new types of visitor. This also breaks up the gallery physically and creates moments for the visitor to pause and refresh- The galleries are floor to ceiling shelves of bottles and opthamologist tools and patent medicines and it is overwhelming and could become monotonous. I love museum gift shops. I have a lot of sentimental nostalgia and modern day respect for them. Many visitors love to look in a gift shop and find a token or item to commemorate their experience. It can really solidify the memories of the visit. For example, by looking through images, t-shirts, mugs, etc related to the exhibit or institution, one is given a mental recap that causes stronger memory formation. Secondly, books and informational media can help to extend knowledge after the visit, which furthers most museum missions to educate the public. The Pharmacy Museum has a very small giftshop in a perhaps 3x8 foot space of wall next to the entrance/exit door. It included note cards with images from the collection and some books that would appeal to visitors interested in home remedies and herbal medicine. With the cost of admission so low ($5), I was delighted to spend money on some of these items, and they were all travel-friendly (ex. not snowglobes or large bulky items).

The Carriage Ride and Cemetery Tour

I had been totally overwhelmed by the number of ghost tours and cemetery tours available in New Orleans. I wanted to do something with historic information and avoid the party and drinking scene. I was also exhausted in the evenings after networking at the conference and walking all day. My friend insisted with take the carriage tour. I dutifully looked up how much it would cost and where to go to get tickets. There were explicit instructions to "Purchase your ticket now, to Guarantee a Seat!". For example:

"This tour departs from 700 Decatur. All tour participants must check in with the manager on duty, located under the red umbrella. He or she will place you on the correct carriage for the tour.

  Due to the popular nature of these tours, tickets are required to guarantee your seat on the carriage. We are usually unable to accommodate those guests who arrive without pre-purchased tickets."

And the "location" did not seem to exist. After a frustrating few laps searching for a ticket booth my friend insisted we just go to the carriage driver and ask. And that was the thing to do, apparently. Walk up to the first waiting carriage and hand the drive your $40. I will admit that if I had been on my own, or if I were calling the shots, I would have skipped the carriage tour just because of how frustrating it was to have conflicting protocols on the website and in reality. Now the $40 is not unreasonable if you consider:

-Cemetery entrance ($20) is included

- the humidity and heat you would need to walk through without the tour

- the charm of a fringe-top carriage and mule for all those social media photos

-the knowledgeable tour guide who is happy to personalize the experience and answer any questions.

Our guide's name was.. and our Mule's name was...

Mules are used rather than horses as our guide put it, "because mules can take the heat better." He also explained the working conditions and regulations that both Mules and guides must undertake to work for the carriage tours. He made a few jokes about envying the mule. The tour through the Old French Quarter was very relaxed and informative. We shared the carriage with two elder women, one of whom made an emotional comment about the recent removal of confederate monuments. My friend and I tensed up, prepared to get deep into the weeds with this woman about the need to remove some monuments because of the structural racism they perpetuate, but she let it go and our guide smoothly continued the tour. I could write a post or two just on the removal of monuments in the country.

When we got to the cemetery, we walked with our guide to various tombstones and he described the payment systems, Perpetual Care, that protected some burial sites from decay by providing maintenance. He talked about the lives of some of the inhabitants of the cemetery and we ended by looking at the supposed resting place of a famous hairdresser and voodoo practitioner. One interesting thing about the cemetery, is that our guide mentioned he had to stand a certain number of feet away from other guides, and it almost had a mafia-esque feel, all the subtle jostling for space and the superior demeanor of guides with voice amplifiers. Our guide also pointed out the row of three x es on some stones, and the purpose of them to ask for a wish. He explained with some wistfulness how people weren't allowed to mark the graves anymore because it was considered graffitti, but in the same breath mourned the destruction of the graves by vandals. Our companions took some time taking pictures and placing three coins near the grave before we left. It made me wonder what kind of outlet the cemetery could provide for pilgim-visitors. Perhaps a board or wall near the staffed entrance/exit with an image of the most common famous figures in the cemetery and the space for visitors to write notes to place below. Maybe with offering bowls. This could allow visitors an outlet and preserve the grave sites. Although not directly on the graves anymore, this ritual of tribute could still carry meaning if it is inside the cemetery, and could also provide the cemetery with some revenue if a donation box were placed nearby.

However- I should make it clear that I work in Education, not Development. And though these ideas sound good to me personally, and I think they would work, there might be very legitimate reasons not to do this. I have not studied the visitor psychology behind cemetery tour interactives and funding streams.

What did you think of this Museum Review? Want more? Let me know in the comments!

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