With Twelfth Night fading from memory and Carnival balls proceeding at a furious pace, the Historic New Orleans Collection presents its first Carnival exhibit in the former home of Gen. L. Kemper and Leila Williams, the benefactors who founded the museum and donated their French Quarter home to the cause. The exhibit will shine on a light on the personal involvement of the couple with Carnival.
“The Williamses were passionate about New Orleans and loved (the city's) traditions,” said Lydia Blackmore, curator of decorative arts at the Collection and the exhibit’s organizer.
Entertaining friends for Carnival events and watching parades from their balcony at 533 Royal St. were among activities the Williamses enjoyed.
“Before 1973, parades could proceed through the French Quarter and pass their balcony. It was directly across from WDSU, and the parades would slow down when they got near the TV station so they could get on camera,” Blackmore said.
The new tour will appeal to natives and visitors alike, as it addresses not only the Williamses’ participation in the annual event but the nature of the event itself.
“We’ll be asking and answering basic questions such as ‘What is Carnival?’ ” Blackmore said. Although the terms “Carnival” and “Mardi Gras" often are used interchangeably, they shouldn’t be. “Carnival is the season from Twelfth Night to Mardi Gras when we celebrate with food, drink and masking before the restrictions of Lent.” Mardi Gras, on the other hand, is a single day — Fat Tuesday.
Because Leila Williams reigned as the Queen of Mystic in 1936, there will be photos, crown jewels and an ermine-trimmed cape on view. In the dining room, the table will be set and invitations will be on display, as well as favors from past Carnival balls. In Kemper Williams’ library, there are more mementos and even a Comus cup.
“Comus’ identity is never revealed, so we don’t speculate on how it got there,” Blackmore said.
The special guided tour — “Rites, Rituals, Revelry” — takes place daily at 11 a.m., Tuesday through Sunday, while self-guided tours of the residence proceed. The exhibit may be just the impetus to visit for locals who have never seen the residence.
“Their home is a perfect time capsule of how upper middle-class families lived in the 1960s — it’s mid-century but more mid-century elegant than mid-century modern,” Blackmore noted.
Of exceptional interest throughout the residence are watercolors by historian and artist Alvyk Boyd Cruise, the first director of the Collection and the cataloger and curator of the Williamses’ art collection.
“The exhibit in the residence represents just one way New Orleanian become involved with Carnival. All of our programming for the month relates to the many additional ways of participating,” Blackmore said.
The Collection and Williams Residence are open Tuesday-Saturday, 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and Sunday, 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Visit hnoc.org for information about programs and events that explore the history of the Baby Dolls, the Mardi Gras Indians and gay carnival.