Historic New Orleans Collection's New Exhibit

Before the ironwork balconies and towering cathedral, before the vibrant music of Congo Square and calas ladies selling at market, New Orleans was a tiny settlement along a mighty river. Three hundred years later, The Historic New Orleans Collection (THNOC) offers a new exhibit to explore the earliest days of the Crescent City.

“New Orleans, the Founding Era” is an original exhibition open through May 27, 2018 in commemoration of the city’s tricentennial. It features rare artifacts from THNOC’s holdings, as well as objects on loan from institutions across Europe and North America. Taking almost three years to create, it truly is a can’t-miss exhibit for everyone in New Orleans, whether local or visitor.

Something the exhibit does extremely well is give credence and insight into the various groups of people who played a role in the creation of New Orleans in those early decades.

“There were so many groups whose existence in and around early New Orleans shaped its growth and development,” explained Erin M. Greenwald, historian and curator of “New Orleans, the Founding Era,” and now curator of programs at the New Orleans Museum of Art.

“My research led me to include in the galleries stories of Ursuline nuns, Capuchin priests and pious laywomen; Natchez warriors, a Chitimacha chief and Tunica allies; French engineers, administrators, merchants and would-be planters; children and families—free and unfree; and enslaved African craftsmen, nurses, healers and sailors.”

Greenwald and the THNOC team accomplished this by relying not only on written records, such as documents, maps, memoirs and letters, but also on material culture including objects found above ground and those that came from archaeological digs in the French Quarter.

Asked which is her favorite piece in the collection, Greenwald described a 1726 panoramic view of New Orleans and the Company of the Indies Plantation (located on land now called Algiers Point) on loan from the Archives Nationales d’Outre-Mer in Aix-en-Provence, France.

“It is one of the most visually stunning and historically important objects in this exhibition,” said Greenwald. “Created by the French surveyor Jean Pierre Lassus, this earliest-known pictorial view of New Orleans provides an intimate view of the settlement in its infancy.
New Orleans has a well-deserved identity as a place where cultures have mixed for 300 years – where people with and without choice lived and borrowed bits and pieces from each other to create something new. Our music, religion, architecture and food can all be linked to this melding of traditions. Greenwald sees this history as a key aspect of our present.

One particular group often left out of the founding story of New Orleans includes this area’s earliest inhabitants, which this exhibit aims to challenge. Greenwald said there is a misconception that European New Orleans was the first settlement at this geographical location. In fact, the archeological records show the site was occupied by Native Americans for at least a century before the European arrival.

“As a curator, my goal is to help visitors better understand the settlement’s development from a swampy backwater home to a handful of rough-hewn structures, and a number of equally rough inhabitants to a cultural and economic crossroads designed by royal engineers and shaped by a kaleidoscopic array of influences,” explained Greenwald.

Beyond the physical artifacts, the exhibit also features digital interactive aspects including an archeological map, a game quizzing visitors on what supplies were needed for a new home settlement, a 1731 inventory of enslaved Africans and African-descended people living on a West Bank plantation and audio recordings of the letters and writings of early New Orleans residents. THNOC has also created a

companion catalogue that is available for purchase, as well as other related books that will be stocked at The Shop at The Collection.
“New Orleans, the Founding Era” will be on view at THNOC’s 533 Royal St. location through May 27, 2018. The gallery hours will be Tuesdays through Saturdays from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and Sundays from 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Admission is free. More about the exhibit and coordinating special events can be found at thnoc.org.

Jennifer Gibson Schecter was once a tourist in New Orleans herself and is now proud to call NOLA home. She also writes the Wednesday Tourism Blog on BizNewOrleans.com.