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The 18th Star: Treasures from 200 Years of Louisiana Statehood

The definition of treasure varies by individual, by community, and by culture. The term may immediately connote objects made of intrinsically valuable materials—emeralds, platinum, ambergris—but is also used, in a broader sense, to reference keepsakes, monuments, memories, events, and even people. Embracing this latter, more inclusive definition, the exhibition The 18th Star: Treasures from 200 Years of Louisiana Statehood presented an array of signature items from the holdings of The Historic New Orleans Collection to tell the stories that have defined Louisiana since its entry into the Union on April 30, 1812, as the eighteenth state.

The exhibition’s curators—a diverse group of staff members including historians, cataloguers, registrars, librarians, and reference specialists—selected objects that are by turns fundamental, quirky, and extraordinary. The 18th Star presents these materials in a chronological fashion, though visitors will discern particular themes that weave in and out of the narrative: political and military history, arts and literature, social change and cultural diversity. Although New Orleans, the state’s most readily identified city, is well represented, every region of Louisiana lends its voice to the exhibition. Indeed, visitors who consider themselves familiar with The Collection’s treasures may be surprised by the breadth of materials on display; items that are usually included in the institution’s permanent exhibitions, or have had other recent exposure in display or publications were not selected.

A review of a handful of items in the exhibition suggests the malleable definition of treasure and the wide-ranging nature of Louisiana’s history illustrated in The 18th Star.

A can of drinking water distributed after Hurricane Katrina is a reminder that everyday conveniences (drinking water on demand) can become keys to survival when a calamity occurs. The adage “water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink” took on new import, and irony, in many communities when hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated coastal Louisiana in 2005.

A manuscript copy of the first Constitution for the State of Louisiana (1812), written in French, is not only an official document but also a window into early 19th-century society. The prospect of admitting Catholic, French-speaking Louisiana to the Union prompted great debate in the United States Congress. Though the official language of Louisiana and its constitution was English, the revised and amended document continued to be published in French for more than one hundred years. Despite the Gallic accent, a number of framers and signers of the state’s first constitution were in fact English-speaking “Americans.” Typical of its day, the constitution only offered the right of voting to white males.

A poster encouraging operators of small boats to assist the United States Coast Guard during World War II is one of many produced under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration (WPA, later the Work Projects Administration). Visual artists hired by the WPA used their talents to create images that alerted the public to the need to ration critical goods, stay healthy, avoid loose talk that could assist the enemy, and promote the war effort in various ways.

A photograph by Arthur P. Bedou from 1915 depicts civil rights pioneer Booker T. Washington (who died November 14 of that year) addressing a crowd in Louisiana on his final visit to the state. Photography entered the realm of visual expression in Louisiana when Jules Lion, a free man of color, introduced it in New Orleans in the spring of 1840. From that point, it became a common means of recording every manner of visage, event, milestone, and everyday occurrence, offering the prospect of a visual present (and past) to a wide segment of the population.

These items and others in the exhibition speak not only to Louisiana’s rich history but to the nature of The Historic New Orleans Collection as a cultural institution. The Collection’s holdings were built around a core group of objects collected by the organization’s founders, Kemper and Leila Williams to illustrate key themes; the collection has been expanded in the four decades since the deaths of the Williamses by a professional staff of curators and librarians under the authority of a board of directors. Significant expansion of both the subjects covered (e.g., jazz history, the life and literature of Tennessee Williams, materials documenting contemporary New Orleans) and forms of objects collected (audio and video recordings, photographic negatives, examples of Louisiana-made furniture) have occurred during that time. Regardless of one’s specific interests in Louisiana’s stunningly varied history, the trove of materials that constitutes the holdings of The Historic New Orleans Collection contains treasures for all.

—John H. Lawrence

The Eighteenth Star: Treasures from 200 Years of Louisiana Statehood
August 30, 2011–January 29, 2012
533 Royal St.
New Orleans, Louisiana
Gallery hours: Tuesday–Saturday, 9:30 a.m.–4:30 p.m., Sunday, 10:30 a.m.–4:30 p.m.
Admission is free.

Related Programming
Becoming American: The Musical Journey
A concert with the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra
Wednesday, January 25, 2012
St. Louis Cathedral, Jackson Square

Louisiana at 200: In the National Eye
17th Annual Williams Research Center Symposium
Saturday, January 28, 2012
Hotel Monteleone, 214 Royal St.

Story Contest
In conjunction with the exhibition, The Collection invites 7th and 8th grade students in the Greater New Orleans area to participate in a story contest to commemorate the state’s bicentennial. 

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