Mystery and Benevolence: Masonic and Odd Fellows Folk Art
February 16, 2024 to May 12, 2024
Tuesday–Saturday, 9:30 a.m.–4:30 p.m.; Sunday, 10:30 a.m.–4:30 p.m.
520 Royal Street, Tricentennial Wing, 3rd Floor
Free ticketed admission


About the Exhibition

The traveling exhibition Mystery and Benevolence: Masonic and Odd Fellows Folk Art, curated by the American Folk Art Museum, showcases more than 80 intriguing and captivating objects, ranging from grave markers and serpent-headed staffs to embroidered textiles and ceremonial regalia.

Recalling the golden age of American secret societies, the exhibition focuses on two fraternal brotherhoods, the Freemasons and the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, which have deep historical roots in America. The art associated with these fraternal practices is both mystical and evocative, often displaying an element of strangeness. It is rich in symbols that are simultaneously familiar and uncommon. Delving into the cryptic symbols and hieroglyphs used in the ceremonies and ritualized performances of these brotherhoods, Mystery and Benevolence unravels the histories of the Freemasons and the Odd Fellows.

Freemasonry can be traced back to the 16th century in the British Isles, where guilds were formed by stonemasons and craftsmen as a means of providing shelter and fellowship to members who were constantly on the move for work (explaining why the order's regalia prominently features items like aprons, squares, and compasses). By the year 1900, it is estimated that between 20 to 40 percent of American men were members of at least one fraternal order. This includes the proliferation of numerous other similar groups such as the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks and the Knights of Pythias. While participation in these societies declined after World War II, many of them continue to exist today, driven by a commitment to fostering friendship, understanding, and a mission of charity, education, and goodwill. The folk art displayed in Mystery and Benevolence serves as a testament to the enduring allure of their clandestine rituals.

A companion exhibition, A Mystic Brotherhood: Fraternal Orders of New Orleans, on view December 8, 2023, through May 12, 2024, draws on images and objects in THNOC’s holdings to explore how fraternal organizations in New Orleans helped shape the city’s history, culture, and civic life.

Image (above): Independent Order of Odd Fellows heart-in-hands staffs; between 1850 and 1900; artist unidentified; Collection of American Folk Art Museum, New York, gift of Kendra and Allan Daniel; photo by José Andrés Ramírez

Related Programs

Guided Tour: Benefits of Brotherhood: Fraternal Orders in New Orleans and America

Thursdays and Saturdays at 12:30 p.m.
520 Royal Street, 1st Floor
Admission $5, free for members

Curious about the beginnings of Freemason and Odd Fellows fraternal organizations? Join us for this 40-minute guided tour of THNOC's exhibitions that explores the traditions, values, rituals, and impact of these sometimes mysterious groups on the history of our nation and the city of New Orleans.



Mystery and Benevolence was organized by the American Folk Art Museum, New York, from the Kendra and Allan Daniel Collection and is toured by International Arts & Artists, Washington, DC. It is sponsored locally by the 2024 Bienville Circle and media partner WWL-TV.