Surrounded by Water: New Orleans, the Mississippi River & Lake Pontchartrain
The exhibition Surrounded by Water: New Orleans, the Mississippi River, and Lake Pontchartrain encouraged visitors to immerse themselves in both the natural history of the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain, and in the human history played out along their banks and shores over the course of the last three centuries. Drawing on a diverse assortment of objects—from manuscripts and sheet music to maps, photographs, and engravings—the exhibition examined the roles the river and lake have played in New Orleans’s economic, social, and cultural development, while reflecting upon the effects that the city’s expansion has had upon the bodies of water themselves.
Along its considerable length, the Mississippi River presents many appearances. Its headwaters, in the glacial lakes of Minnesota, produce a modest stream that gradually widens as it travels south. Tumbling over St. Anthony’s Falls at Minneapolis, then passing the bluffs of Iowa, the river gathers volume and width, pressing toward its confluence with the Missouri (at St. Louis) and, further downstream, the Ohio (at Cairo, Illinois). When the flow reaches the flatlands of Louisiana, its broad, sheetlike surface belies a swift and treacherous current, racing toward discharge into the Gulf of Mexico through a weblike array of channels. Despite engineers’ best efforts to smooth the transitions along its length, the Mississippi remains many rivers in one.
The city of New Orleans owes its existence–and its economic viability–to the same
geographic features that perpetuate its vulnerability. For centuries, the Mississippi has acted as the primary conduit for the consumer goods, natural resources, and agricultural products that make New Orleans one of the world’s greatest ports. Lake Pontchartrain to the north and the Gulf of Mexico to the south further enhance the city’s stature as a hub of travel, trade, and recreation. Yet periodic flooding, tropical storms, and vanishing wetlands are ever-present reminders of instability. Surrounded by water, the city is also surrounded by risk. And still, New Orleans perseveres.
As it flows to the Gulf, the Mississippi deposits vast quantities of sediment upon its banks. Over the ages, the river has shaped much of the waterscape of southeast Louisiana: lakes Pontchartrain, Borgne, and Maurepas; numerous interconnected brackish bays; and countless secondary rivers, streams, and bayous. Habitation patterns, too, have taken their cues from the river’s course. Prior to European settlement of the Gulf South, the region’s waterways served as important trade routes for a multitude of Native American groups. River, lakes, and tributaries remained vital to Native American, European, and eventually American trade and development throughout the colonial, territorial, and antebellum periods. Not only commerce, but culture, too, has flowed both upriver and down, while Louisiana’s lakes and streams have attracted generations of boaters, bathers, and sportsmen.