If nothing else, the tricentennial celebrations this year have given New Orleans plenty of opportunities to look at itself.
Conceptually ambitious exhibitions at the New Orleans Museum of Art and the Newcomb Art Museum at Tulane have marked the occasion by exploring alternative New Orleans histories that aren't always included in the “official” narrative.
But the Louisiana State Museum at the Cabildo has taken a safer route.
“We Love You, New Orleans” includes more than a hundred objects —mostly from the Louisiana State Museum collections, with a few objects on loan from elsewhere — ranging from glittery Mardi Gras memorabilia to vintage jazz instruments to French Quarter nightclub posters.
Like the extraordinary “Empire” at Newcomb (which has been extended through December), it feels like a peek into the collective storage attic of the city.
Unlike the Newcomb show, however, “We Love You, New Orleans” doesn’t seek to present these objects in a new context. For better or worse, it’s a show that doesn’t interrogate or reconfigure the stories New Orleans tells about itself. Instead, it unequivocally celebrates them.
In fact, if there were an “official” New Orleans historical narrative, it’d probably look a lot like “We Love You, New Orleans.” (The title is from a late 1960s color supplement from The New Orleans States-Item celebrating that year’s Rex court and parade, which is about as New Orleans-y an object as you’re likely to find anywhere.)
Which isn’t to say that there aren’t a lot of wonderful things on display here. You’d have to be awfully cynical — or been born far beyond the borders of Orleans Parish — not to feel the nostalgic pulse of a vintage K&B sign.
A local sensibility might be required to properly appreciate a Morgus the Magnificent hand puppet sold by Maison Blanche in the 1960s, which shares a display case with Dorothy Lamour’s sash from a 1931 Miss New Orleans contest.
Nearby, a giddy poster heralds the opening of Pontchartrain Beach in 1939 — while almost directly opposite, the label that accompanies a blurry wall-sized enlargement of a group photo at the nearby Lincoln Beach describes it as a place that “provided African-Americans, who were denied entry at Pontchartrain Beach, with a place to swim.”
And that’s about as much as the show mentions regarding New Orleans’ complicated and painful histories of racism and class.
A stunning tricentennial-themed ensemble by the New Orleans Black Mardi Gras Indian Co-op and New Corps Inc. installed in the entrance vestibule of the Cabildo makes a powerful statement through its details, which show a group of protesters holding a sign that says “No More Jim Crow.” But in its isolation from the rest of the exhibition, it feels pointedly disengaged from the bigger story.
There’s some genuinely engaging stuff scattered throughout the exhibition’s eight sections, like the 1910-1911 guest register for Madame Bégue’s breakfast restaurant in the French Quarter: The history of brunch in America starts here.
The costumes and dresses from the state museum’s extensive archives — including a gorgeous D.H. Holmes dinner dress circa 1886 — are another exhibition highlight (“I have at least a hundred more equally wonderful pieces in the archives for every one that’s in the show,” said exhibition co-curator Wayne Phillips).
And you might already know about the copy of Napoleon’s death mask at the Cabildo. But did you know its archive also contains one of trumpeter and vocalist Oscar “Papa” Celestin? Well, here it is, resting serenely across from a cheesecake photo of burlesque performer Lily Christine, better known as the “Cat Lady” — two legendary Bourbon Street artists reunited at last.
Despite moments like these, however, the show feels like a missed opportunity.
It’s probably no surprise that an exhibition space that sits squarely at the epicenter of New Orleans’ historic and tourist experience would present such a broadly crowd-pleasing survey of the city’s history. But it sacrifices depth for breadth in the process.
In skirting larger and more complex cultural and social issues, the show tries to focus on the commonalities of the New Orleans experience rather than the differences — which, given how fragmented the greater culture feels at this point in American history, might not be such a bad thing.
But acknowledging difficult truths is part of loving something too, and in that respect the show does the full history of New Orleans a disservice.
Through its purple-, gold- and green-tinted view of the past, “We Love You, New Orleans” is an entertainingly nostalgic if incomplete look at where we’ve been. Just don’t expect it to tell you much about where we’re going.
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“We Love You, New Orleans”
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays (closed Mondays), through December 2019
WHERE: The Cabildo, 701 Chartres St. (Jackson Square)
ADMISSION: $6 adults; $5 students, seniors and active military; free for children 6 and under
INFO: louisianastatemuseum.org/museum/cabildo or (504) 568-6968