Living with Hurricanes at the Louisiana State Museum

what remains of a piano damaged by Hurricane Katrina
Fats Domino's piano

Last month I was in New Orleans for a joyful family occasion, and I had the chance to see a new exhibit at the Presbytere building of the Louisiana State Museum titled Living With Hurricanes: Katrina and Beyond. I was intrigued by the exhibit to see how a museum in the heart of an affected area remembered and interpreted a major natural and human disaster. I was also drawn because Katrina had a direct impact on my family.

The joyful family occasion was my sister and her husband’s graduation from medical school. My sister moved to New Orleans for med school at the beginning of August 2005. Less than a month later, she was thousands of miles from her barely-unpacked house, with two cats, a car, and no idea when she’d be able to get back into the city. I viewed the events of Katrina and Rita through a familial lens; this exhibit was a chance to look at it from a different angle.

Overall, I found the exhibit compelling, informative, and I think designed in a way so that every visitor would come away having learned something. Information was presented in a number of ways, providing all sorts of ways for a visitor to connect to the story. The exhibit also seemed like it would not be too traumatic for someone who had experienced the storm to visit.

It begins with an overall history of hurricanes in New Orleans, the stories of the major storms of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. One of the mid-century storms was the inspiration for New Orleans families in flood zones to keep an axe in the attic – an act which apparently saved lives in 2005. The visitor moves on to the storm warnings for Katrina, the experience of being in the hurricane (with a live water feature for sound), and then the aftermath of the months of digging and trying to get the city back to shape.

These rooms are more dimly lit, with an overall dark background to the paneling. In the aftermath room, spotlights brighten and dim in certain areas to highlight the collection item or wall panel which accompanies the audio track being played on a loudspeaker (there are pauses in between each piece). In all of the rooms throughout the exhibit are audio devices which look like an old phone booth handset, minus the microphone, which provide visitors with first person accounts. All of the objects in this room are powerful, but perhaps the most powerful is the drywall on which a man who stayed in New Orleans kept a diary from the day Katrina hit through October. These panels occupy a corner, which allows a visitor to immerse themselves in the walls, a facsimile of the room in which the words were first written.

Following these rooms, there is a break, a room with bright, almost institutional lighting, and a series of displays explaining the science of levee engineering. I especially appreciated this room because it presented the same information three different ways. There was a wall panel, explaining different materials for levee building. Directly below it is a block and ball, hands-on example. To the right is a chance to interact with the same models, but on a touchscreen. It did not feel redundant, but rather  a way of making sure that multiple people could have a hands-on experience at the same time, in the manner which best suited them. I noticed the touchscreen first, and was working with it when my mother said “Come see this!” from the wooden display. Generational differences clearly accomodated.

The finale of the exhibit is a series of window frames, some of which host video screens instead of glass. The screens come to life in a scheduled program, with many different types of New Orleanians speaking to their experience of the hurricanes and the aftermath. This installation does an excellent job of rounding out an exhibit where the authentic voices of locals are used frequently and respectfully.

In my experience, the exhibit was respectful, engaging, and insightful. I would encourage anyone visiting New Orleans to go to the Presbytere, a fantastic museum and historic building in its own right, and see this exhibit; it will, I think, help deepen your understanding of the city.  The website, which I only just discovered, seems to be a laudable attempt to engage visitors and locals in the story which the exhibit tells.