The Cabildo and The Presbytère

Greetings from New Orleans! Today was our first full day in this incredibly vibrant city. We spent most of the day walking around the French Quarter admiring the architecture and stopping for beignets along the way. Also on the agenda was visiting the Cabildo and the Presbytère. On arriving in a new city, I always like to start with a city-specific history museum to gain a greater understanding of where I am. As both the Cabildo and the Presbytère provide this overview, I’ve decided to combine them in one post. They also both belong to the broader Louisiana State Museum group.

The Presbytère

The first thing you’ll probably notice when visiting these museums is that they occupy some pretty spectacular buildings. The Presbytère, built in 1791, matches the style of the Cabildo and housed businesses and a courthouse until 1834. In 1911, the building was acquired by the Louisiana State Museum.

One of the most eye-opening exhibitions we visited is titled ‘Living with Hurricanes: Katrina & Beyond’. On display is a mix of photographs, survivor testimonies, objects found after Hurricane Katrina and a few panels for context. It reminded me a lot of the Quake City museum we visited in Christchurch. In summary, both address a natural disaster by displaying objects along with personal stories. These stories are central to the exhibition and shape the visitor experience.

The exhibition begins with a few brief introductory panels explaining why New Orleans is susceptible to hurricanes. There is also a small section on Hurricane Betsy that hit in 1965 and was the first hurricane to result in over $1 billion in damages. After establishing this context, the exhibition focuses on Katrina following a chronology of events. The path through the exhibition is prescribed which, similar to Quake City, makes sense.

There are four sections that are designed particularly well: hurricane Katrina footage, survivor testimonies, visual timeline of events and the aftermath.

1. Hurricane Katrina Footage

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In one of the first rooms you enter there are three large projector screens each showing footage of the hurricane. It is a very sensory experience including loud sounds and even some air blowing down from the ceiling. What this room achieves is setting the scene of the hurricane before then focusing on survivor testimonies. Although it is obviously extremely different to actually experiencing this kind of disaster, it does provide a basic understanding. This is especially helpful for those who may be unaware of what can happen during a hurricane.

2. Survivor Testimonies

We spent the most amount of time in the room which has survivor testimonies playing on loop. As each new testimony starts, a different object in the space is highlighted. For example, one of the objects is a ‘Meals, Ready-to-Eat’ kit filled with non-perishable food items and water. These kits were distributed to those after the hurricane. The accompanying audio includes information on the condition of the Superdome (where many fled to as their houses were destroyed) and the slow response to help those in need.

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Another object is the diary of Tommie Mabry who inscribed his experience of the hurricane on the walls of his apartment. The actual walls are on display so you can read Mabry’s response to the hurricane as it progressed.

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Having these survivor testimonies is an absolute necessity when curating an exhibition on a disaster. It is important to never lose sight of the fact that people both experienced and survived something so horrific. It is also a reminder of the impact that actions taken by governments, officials, etc., can have in the wake of a disaster.

3. Visual Timeline of Events

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After the survivor testimonies is a television displaying a map that shows the extent of the destruction evolving over time. There are some testimonies dispersed throughout the video. You can see how one weak flood wall meant the difference between a safe city and a disaster.

4. Aftermath

This section of the exhibition again added something personal to the disaster displaying objects such as teddy bears and garage doors that were collected days after the hurricane. They are a reminder of both who and what was lost.

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As well as the hurricane exhibition, there is a permanent display on Mardi Gras. This is on the second level of the building and contains a bit of Mardi Gras history and some pretty amazing costumes. Here are a few to admire!

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Chinese Lanterns
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Weighing of the Heart
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Insect
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Wheel of Fortune

The Cabildo

The Cabildo was built under the Spanish rule over New Orleans and served as the New Orleans Government building until 1853 and the Louisiana State Supreme Court until 1908. It was in this building that the Plessy v. Ferguson decision originated. In 1908 it became part of the Louisiana State Museum.

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We didn’t spend too much time in this museum as visitor fatigue from the Presbytère was starting to set in. Currently on display is an exhibition titled ‘We Love You, New Orleans’. If you are looking for a brief overview of the city then this is a great place to start. There is also a collaborative element with visitors encouraged to write down what they love about New Orleans. I wish these postcards were on display and not placed inside a box. It would have been interesting to read the diversity of responses.

The exhibition revolves around a number of themes including night life, Mardi Gras and the street cars. One particular object that was a highlight for me is the Rebecca dress. On display is the 10 000th dress designed and manufactured by Jolie Bensen Hamilton and Sarah Elizabeth Dewey Petitto. After Hurricane Katrina, Hamilton and Petitto returned to New Orleans from New York to try and help rebuild the city’s economy. They created this dress using seersucker material, normally reserved for men’s suits.

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After this exhibition, we definitely felt the visitor fatigue kick in. Rather than focusing on another exhibition, we just wandered around the building. Both the Cabildo and Presbytère have these amazing large empty rooms overlooking Jackson Square offering some beautiful views.

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I found our visit to be both relaxing yet informative and a great start to our time in New Orleans.

Visitor Information

Both museums are open Tuesday to Sunday from 10am to 4.30pm. They do not open on the day of Mardi Gras. There is an entrance fee of $7 for The Presbytère and $10 for the Cabildo. Both are accessible. If you only have time to visit one of these museums, I would recommend The Cabildo if you are after a more general history of New Orleans or The Presbytère if you are hoping to learn more about Hurricane Katrina/Mardi Gras in much more depth.

Author: Rebecca Lush

Curator, Integrated Pathology Learning Centre.

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