Culturally rich and historically complex, New Orleans often feels like its own museum. Unintentional exhibits are found in stumbled-upon courtyards, time-capsule bars, famous old restaurants and restored homes. The city's actual museums also go a long way toward preserving and celebrating its culture and history, too, and are staffed with people who love sharing fascinating facts (and artifacts). If you're curious about past and present life in the Crescent City, check out these gems.

Bevolo Gas & Electric Lights Museum

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It’s easy to equate the sultry ambience of New Orleans with the flickering lanterns adorning the doorways of businesses and residences alike. You’ll appreciate them even more by heading into the French Quarter storefront of Bevolo — in business and family owned since 1945 — where you’ll discover a working museum space. Two production stations are staffed by coppersmiths who have been blessed with the gift of being able to talk and work at the same time. Say hello and grab a seat on the bench in front of them. Soon you’ll get an earful of facts about the place, leading to increasingly more interesting questions and answers. On one recent visit I found out that this space was the New Orleans headquarters of John F. Kennedy’s 1964 re-election campaign, and that Exchange Place (located out back) was named for the legal fencing matches held there in the late 1800s. They’ll even tell you where the made-to-order lamp they're working on is going to be shipped when complete. It’s assuring to know that the romantic, easygoing essence of New Orleans can be exported in such a functionally tangible way. 


Where: 316 Royal St., French Quarter, New Orleans, LA 70130
When: Mon.-Weds., 9 a.m.-5:30 p.m.; Thurs.-Sat., 9 a.m.-7 p.m.; Sun., 10 a.m.-4 p.m.
More info: +1 504-522-9485; bevolo.com

 

Germaine Cazenave Wells Mardi Gras Museum

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Located above the historic French Quarter restaurant Arnaud’s (and Arnaud’s French 75 Bar), this hidden-away exhibit of lavish Mardi Gras ball costumes seems as secret and mysterious as the Mardi Gras royal court society traditions themselves. The costumes, masks and jewels from 1941 to 1968 are displayed on retro mannequins placed behind glass in a darkly lit, U-shaped hallway. You'll feel like you’ve stumbled into a shrine, and indeed you have — one dedicated to Germaine Cazenave Wells, daughter of restaurant founder Count Arnaud Cazenave. She reigned as queen over more balls than any other woman in the history of New Orleans Carnival. Since most visitors find out about the museum from the charming staff, it’s never crowded. That's the recommended way to see it: by invitation, after indulging in the famous French 75 cocktail at the namesake bar. 

Where: 813 Bienville St., French Quarter, New Orleans, LA 70112
When: Mon.-Sat., 6-10:30 p.m.; Sun., 10 a.m.-2:30 p.m. & 6-10:30 p.m.
More info: +1 504-523-5433; arnaudsrestaurant.com

 

Backstreet Cultural Museum

Located in the historic neighborhood of Faubourg Tremé, this small building houses a fascinating and almost overwhelming collection of artifacts from the masking and processional traditions rooted in the African American community. Most travelers to New Orleans come with a hint of knowledge of these rituals via captivating photos or footage of Mardi Gras Indians, jazz funerals, social aid and pleasure clubs, second-line parades, baby dolls, and skull-and-bone gangs. Don’t know what those are? This is where you’ll learn all about the deeper spiritual meanings of these unique-to-New-Orleans traditions. 

Visitors to the two-roomed museum are accompanied by tour guides who have been part of the community for generations, happy to explain and answer questions with personal stories. It’s a living museum, really, with artifacts more in visually organized storage than on pristine display. The building itself doubles as a community center, hosting public performances and serving as a meeting place for the start and end of traditional processions throughout the year. The $10 admission goes directly to keeping these traditions thriving, so consider pitching in more, or even becoming a member to receive the second-line parade route sheets and calendar so you can catch one on your inevitable next trip to New Orleans. 

Where: 1116 Henriette Delille St., Tremé, New Orleans, LA 70116
When: Tues.-Sat., 10 a.m.-4 p.m.
More info: +1 504-577-6001; backstreetmuseum.org

 

 

The Historic New Orleans Collection 

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If you want to get a bit more heady about it all, visit the Williams Research Center, where you can explore New Orleans and South Louisiana history quietly alongside grad students, genealogy researchers, historical-fiction novelists and maybe even someone working on a Hollywood film. The collection of holdings runs deep enough to rotate four to five free exhibitions a year in multiple French Quarter galleries, each providing a cool, contemplative respite from the heat and hubbub of the area’s well-worn sidewalks. On a recent visit, exhibits included antebellum and Civil War–era banknotes, as well as 20 women who changed New Orleans through activism.

One of the most accessible finds in the research library is the Jules Cahn film collection. Dozens of 20- to 30-minute snippets of jazz funerals, second-line parades and Mardi Gras Indian costuming from the 1960s through the 1980s can be viewed on any of the library computer monitors. Most footage was recorded without sound, providing an ethereal, fly-on-the-wall perspective. For the complete geek-out, check out the free apps and podcasts too.

Where: Research Center, 410 Chartres St., French Quarter, New Orleans, LA 70130; Collection, 533 Royal St., French Quarter, New Orleans, LA 70130
When: Tues.-Sat., 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m.; Royal Street Complex also open Sun., 10:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m.
More info: +1 504 598 7171; hnoc.org

 

Whitney Plantation

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An hour-long road trip in a rental car up the Mississippi River is well worth it to visit the first American museum focused solely on the slave experience. Unlike most plantation tours, the Whitney's ends in the main house rather than starting there, taking you on a guided group tour through the plantation itself. The harsh realities of an enslaved person’s existence are shared through stories and recorded documentation of individuals who lived right here, as well as in sobering on-site memorials and artifacts — such as an iron jail cell designed to hold human inventory for sale in New Orleans. It’s emotional and thought provoking, a necessary antithesis to the romantic, nostalgic notions of mint julep–sipping plantation life of yore. But most of all, it’s an important and visceral experience for anyone seeking understanding through perspective. It will stick with you. 

Where: 5099 Highway 18, Wallace, Louisiana 70049
When: Mon. & Weds.-Sun., 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m.
More info: +1 225-265-3300; whitneyplantation.com

 

Other Recommendations

Irish Cultural Museum: icmnola.com  
Le Musée de f.p.c. (Free People of Color): lemuseedefpc.com 
New Orleans Pharmacy Museum: pharmacymuseum.org 
Preservation Resource Center of New Orleans: prcno.org


By Tami Fairweather

Marketing communicator, consultant and connection enthusiast Tami Fairweather is a lover of fresh air, summer nights, magic, little rituals, and the window seat. She's currently based in New Orleans. Find her on Instagram @tffairweather.