Seeking the Unknown: Natural History Observations in Louisiana, 1698–1840

The exhibition Seeking the Unknown: Natural History Observations in Louisiana, 1698–1840 presented objects that provide a broad historical background for the study of Louisiana’s natural history—from taxidermied animals, specimens in jars, and pressed plants to lavishly illustrated folios.

Seeking the Unknown: Natural History Observations in Louisiana, 1698–1840
February 23–June 2, 2013
533 Royal St.
Gallery hours: Tuesday–Saturday, 9:30 a.m.–4:30 p.m.
Sunday, 10:30 a.m.–4:30 p.m.
Free and open to the public.

Watch FOX 8′s Dave McNamara’s “Heart of Louisiana” segment and get a close up look at the exhibition and hear from the curators.

Roost; between 1900 and 1925; watercolor and gouache by George Louis Viavant; THNOC, gift of Barbara Viavant Johnson (2010.0333)

The Historic New Orleans Collection relived the romance and mystery of Louisiana’s early scientific expeditions with the exhibition, Seeking the Unknown: Natural History Observations in Louisiana, 1698–1840.

Louisiana’s lush and distinctive environment has long played into the state’s identity, evidenced by monikers like “the Sportsman’s Paradise,” “the Bayou State” and “the Pelican state.” Records from some of the first explorers prove that the area’s flora, fauna and native people were compelling centuries ago. The new exhibition draws on reports from early European explorers, their accounts kicking off a flurry of interest in the New World’s environment that lasted well into the 19th century. Scientific curiosity—in addition to economic potential and romantic notions—motivated the brave men and women who tackled the strange terrain and its sometimes harsh climate.

“The curious nature of many of the naturalists and explorers of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries is something that never goes out of fashion. Regardless of the era or the field, curiosity drives discovery,” said John H. Lawrence, director of museum programs at THNOC and exhibition co-curator. “This exhibition will give visitors a better understanding of what early explorers and scientists saw in Louisiana’s forests, swamps, rivers and shores.”

Lawrence and fellow co-curator Gilles-Antoine Langlois of the National School of Architecture at Versailles, University Paris-Est Créteil, chose objects that provide a broad historical background for early observations of the Louisiana landscape. The display comprises selections from THNOC’s holdings plus loaned items from several institutions in the state and four French archives. Together, these pieces spotlight particular individuals whose work was influential in recording the natural history of Louisiana.

“With rare exception, the often groundbreaking work of these men was, during their lifetime, known to a relatively small audience,” Langlois wrote in his essay for the exhibition catalogue. “They were unacknowledged collectors of scientific treasures, operating in the shadows, suffering fevers and other unimaginable hardships, rarely receiving widespread recognition or other acclaim. This exhibition finally brings some of their previously invisible work to light.”

Items on display included centuries-old plant and animal specimens—including a bobcat, a cougar and a Mississippi map turtle—collected by various explorers and scientists. The exhibition even featured several reptile specimens in jars that were collected in the 1830s. Detailed drawings, watercolors and illustrated folios—including several by John James Audubon—were also part of the display.

“It’s pretty amazing to see examples of plants and animals that were collected in Louisiana hundreds of years ago,” Lawrence said. “Many of them seem so commonplace to us today—a brown pelican, an alligator gar, Spanish moss—but just imagine seeing something like that for the first time. That’s what this exhibition is about.”

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