Front Porches and Kitchen Gardens
LSU Rural Life Museum takes you back in time
Not too far up the road, just an hour or so from New Orleans on I-10 West, there is a time machine. It will take you to specific geographical regions in the 18th and 19th centuries and show you how rural people lived, worked and left their mark on the Louisiana landscape.
The LSU Rural Life Museum (RLM) is no place you’ll find unless you already know that it is there. Off a bustling six-lane street called Essen Lane, just a few minutes from the highway exit, a right turn will take you onto more than 430 acres of land gifted to Louisiana State University (LSU) by the Burden Family, and nestled in the midst of that land is the Rural Life Museum.
RLM is an indoor/outdoor museum, with a curated and narrated indoor collection of material culture and outdoor installations of 32 buildings spread over 25 acres of land, educating visitors on the vernacular architecture and physical landscapes of early Louisiana residents.
You begin at the award-winning Visitor Center, which feels very much like a historical museum. The exhibitions share the stories of many different Louisianans, including enslaved peoples, plantation owners, Civil War Confederate women, yeoman farmers, Creoles and sharecroppers.
This sets the stage for viewing the artifacts in The Barn, the original museum structure. Entering it physically begins your journey back in time. I was instantly reminded of old flea markets and garage sales, with items organized organically by category and not much identifying information provided. My family had a great time looking at the old farm implements, wagons, medical supplies and even chamber pot commodes. Our son, who will never know life before smart phones, would take wild guesses about different objects and what their function was.
According to Bill Stark, associate director of the LSU Rural Life Museum, this is all intentional.
“Steele Burden had a vision that the museum would be as though you were walking through your grandfather’s barn, where the pieces and relics of the old, rural south were deposited,” explained Stark. “Today, the barn has much the same feel where one can experience an intimacy with the objects unlike any other museum. This is all the more special because the walls are covered with Mr. Burden’s personal artwork that was created to enhance the original exhibits.”
When you exit The Barn, you have your pick of three architectural areas – The Working Plantation, The Gulf Coast Region and The Folk Architecture (Upland South). Each area is plotted with homes and outbuildings that were once located throughout the state, most originally built between 1810 and 1850, and then brought to RLM and rebuilt. The map is very easy to follow and each building has an informational plaque in the front so you learn when it was built, where it was previously located and sometimes even the family that inhabited it for generations.
The interiors of the homes are set up as they would have been in the 19th century, with cooking implements in the fireplaces and more beds in a one-room house than my son thought possible.
Stark said The Dog Trot House from Rapides Parish is tied for his favorite, which comes by way of the gun-toting Neal Family. His other favorite is the historic church.
“The College Grove Baptist Church was built in 1870 in St. James Parish, and served black congregations into the 1960s,” said Stark. “The church was known for its long, elaborate wakes, and is still visited by former congregants.”
My family loved both of those structures. The Dog Trot House, as with most of the buildings, was open for viewing from the doorway, with just a chain preventing entry. No security guard was there yelling at us for poking our heads in, and we felt trusted to respect the chain and see as much as we could see. The College Grove Baptist Church was fully open, and we admired the ingenuity of painting the windows to look like stained glass and imagined the pastor at the pulpit.
Last year, RLM welcomed 82,000 visitors, an increase over previous years. The museum works with various tour companies and river boat excursion companies, including the Delta Queen, American Queen, Tauk Tours, Go West, Bonjour USA and more. Stark said RLM strives to market itself as a tourist destination, and offers docent-led group tours in multiple languages.
The museum holds many events and interactive exhibits with artisans throughout the year, in addition to hosting school groups and serving as a laboratory for university students. It truly is a living history museum.
Stark said, “What’s most exciting is that as we continue to grow and develop with contemporary museum practices and responsiveness to the public and University, the museum has managed to remain true to the original vision as a place of transformation and reflection; accessibility of the collection (most of the exhibition is presented without visual barriers); and as an educational asset to the University.”
If you plan to visit RLM this weekend, be advised that their annual Zapp’s International Beer Fest is Saturday, March 30. Details and tickets are available online.
The LSU Rural Life Museum Visitor’s Center is located at 4650 Essen Lane, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, 70809. It is open daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., and the outdoor buildings are open 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $10 for adults, $8 for children ages 6-11 and free for children ages 5 and under. Discounted admission is also available for senior citizens, LSU-affiliated people and organized school groups.