At Louisiana’s Old State Capitol, you can find out everything you wanted to know about alligators. And then some.
The old capitol is showing “Alligators: Dragons in Paradise,” a traveling exhibit from the Museum of Florida History TREX program, through June 6 in its second-floor exhibition galleries, where visitors can learn about everything from habitats to handbags.
“Though this is a traveling exhibit, we’ve included some Louisiana memorabilia,” says Lauren Davis, curator of the Louisiana Secretary of State Museums. “We have visitors coming in from all over the United States and the world, and they’re all fascinated by alligators.”
Local residents may not be strangers to Louisiana’s state reptile, but there’s something for them, too.
“Everyone enjoys learning more about alligators,” Davis says. “And there are things in this show that they can actually touch and fun facts they may not have known before.”
The exhibit bills itself as “a potpourri of fact and fantasy that explores our enduring fascination with the alligator and the alligator’s symbolic and sociological role in the southeast.”
The alligator has played many roles over the centuries, including Native American god, vilified predator and entertainment attraction. The History Channel’s Louisiana-based hit reality series “Swamp People” has added to the fascination in recent years.
And coinciding with the exhibit, “Swamp People” cast member Jeromy Pruitt will visit the exhibit to meet fans from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, April 18.
The show opens with a touchscreen video presentation.
A hands-on, 6-foot cutout “Alligator I.Q.” board offers a game-show test of alligator knowledge, and visitors are welcome to touch alligator hides, including a tagged hide on loan from West Baton Rouge Parish alligator hunter John Currier.
“The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries issues alligator harvest tags,” the museum label explains. “The tag should be placed about 6 inches from the end of the tail … (and) must stay affixed to the alligator or alligator hide until the tanned hide is made into a finished good.”
“This alligator hide has been dyed,” Davis says, holding up the tail for a closer look. “What people don’t realize — and what they’ll learn in this exhibit — is that alligators’ skin is colorless. They take on the color of their environment.”
An alligator growth chart traces the development of an alligator from birth to maturity. This is illustrated by a simulated alligator nest, complete with eggs, and reproductions of alligator and American crocodile skulls.
“A lot of people don’t realize that the United States has crocodiles, but Florida has them,” Davis says. “This may be something new they learn in the exhibit.”
The reptile’s story wouldn’t be complete without an examination of the industry and products surrounding them.
There’s an exhibit highlighting equipment used in the alligator hunting industry, and for fashionistas, there are cases filled with handbags, shoes, pocketbooks and watchbands made of alligator hides.
One case even features two signature jeweled, egg-shaped evening purses created by Louisiana purse design label Vivian Alexander, located in Maurice. Each bag is covered with dyed alligator hide, one brown, the other a gray-blue and embellished with gemstones, crystals, silver and enamel.
“The show also takes a look at the souvenir industry that rose because of alligators,” Davis says. “We have a souvenir stand showing everything from stuffed animals to salt and pepper shakers shaped like alligators, alligator sauce and chowder and even an alligator claw backscratcher.”
And in the middle of it all is a taxidermied gator in attack stance, mouth opened, ready to bite. But don’t worry, he won’t; he’s just part of the story.