10 Best Museums to Explore History and Culture in New Orleans

Photo courtesy of NewOrleansOnline.com
Photo courtesy of NewOrleansOnline.com
Photo courtesy of The Historic New Orleans Collection
Photo courtesy of Beth D'Addono
By Beth D'Addono, New Orleans Local Expert

 

New Orleans is a city-wide museum, rich in art collections and historic homes reflecting its tumultuous past and Spanish, French, African and American heritage. From world-class art to quirky pocket museums housing important cultural treasures and the nation's only national tribute to the heroes and battles of World War II, New Orleans is ripe for discovering the past.

Of course a sense of place also plays a strong role in the city's cultural landscape. The new Southern Museum of Food and Beverage in Central City places the visitor in a world of the foodways and dishes particular to the American South and New Orleans in particular.  At the Ogden, Southern artists are in the spotlight, whether they work in pottery, glass or oils.

And all museums in New Orleans aren't only about the past. The city's vibrant arts culture is always in flux, on view along developing arts corridors on Oretha Castle Haley and St. Claude Avenue as well as at the Contemporary Arts Center, a repository of visual as well as performance art that runs the spectrum from drag cabaret to dance and music.

An open and curious mind can find much to stimulate in this city that drips with history, culture and artistic verve.

10. New Orleans Museum of Art
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Located in City Park, the neo-classical, Beaux Arts-style New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA) presents an impressive collection spanning the 15th-20th centuries. A great escape from the hectic pace of life in the Big Easy, strolling through NOMA grants visitors a look at Impressionist masterpieces by Monet, Pissarro and Renoir, as well as Surrealist works by Miro, Magritte and Ernst. Additional displays feature Faberge objects and tribal figurines from Hawaiian and Gulf Coast tribes. NOMA houses a collection spanning 4000 years of art history in 46 galleries. Consider biking to the museum up Esplanade Avenue and then taking a spin through the park after museum time.

9. Louisiana Children's Museum
Photo courtesy of Kiawah Confectionery

Hands on learning equals hands on fun at this spunky children's museum, where children are encouraged to discover a world of wonder throughout 30,000 sq. ft. of learn-by-doing exhibits. Head upstairs where role-playing rules, at the Sav-a-Center, a grocery store complete with dairy cases and cashiers, a Kid's Café, for budding chefs-to-be, an optical shop, and a TV set where kids can be a news anchor, reporter, director or meteorologist. Whether they are learning what bones they use to ride a bike, alongside Mr. Bones or loading up a cargo ship in the Little Port of New Orleans exhibit, children take an active role in their own learning. Kids can get charged up by a psychedelic looking plasma Ball, or step inside a giant bubble to see a rainbow of colors. It's all kinds of fun, and geared to children from toddlers to age 12.

8. Confederate Museum
Photo courtesy of Confederate Memorial Hall Museum

Louisiana's Civil War Museum, formerly known as the Confederate Museum, is one of the largest repositories of Confederacy-related artifacts and memorabilia in the United States. Housed in a stone Romanesque-style building, this is the oldest museum in Louisiana. The Confederate Memorial Hall Museum opened to the public in 1891 and today houses the second largest Civil War collection in the world. Visitors can see more than 100 original battle flags, confederate soldiers' regalia and uniforms, as well as a number of Civil War weapons and swords. The museum also features a rare collection of photographs. Striking with their insight, the images photographically capture the period.

7. New Orleans African American Museum of Art, Culture and History

Located in Treme, the oldest surviving black community in the United States, the New Orleans African American Museum is dedicated to protecting, preserving, and promoting through education the history, art, and communities of African Americans in New Orleans and the African diaspora. Located on the site of a former plantation, The Museum is housed in the beautiful Treme Villa, considered by some to be one of the finest examples of a Creole villa in the city. Built in 1828-29, the home retains many of its original decorative details. Be sure to see Louisiana-Congo: The Bertrand Donation, a collection of exquisite African beadwork, costumes, masks, textiles, musical instruments and divination objects. Plan to wander the serene gardens surrounding the villa.

6. New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum
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A most intriguing New Orleans attraction, the Historic Voodoo Museum is surrounded with its fair share of lore, intrigue and notoriety. Located in the heart of the French Quarter, this unusual museum's flexible hours and affordable admission prices make it a must-see, even for skeptics. The dim halls are filled with antique altars, African artifacts used in the practice of this religion and works of art, allowing visitors an enlightened look at an interesting, often misunderstood, aspect of New Orleans culture. The gift shop sells customized gris-gris, which can range from amulets to herbs and potions used in the casting of spells. Yes, they have voodoo dolls.

5. Louisiana State Museum-Cabildo
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Located in Jackson Square adjacent to the St. Louis Cathedral, the Cabildo was built by the Spanish government between 1795 and 1799 to house offices of the town council. It is here where the history-making transfer papers for the Louisiana Purchase were signed in 1803. Today the Cabildo is Louisiana state museum housing a diverse collection of artifacts including one of the four original death masks made of Napoleon in 1821. The building was transferred over to the Louisiana State Museum in 1908 and has served to educate the public about Louisiana history since. Unfortunately, in 1988 the Cabildo was severely damaged by fire. Over the next five years, the landmark was authentically restored using 600-year-old French timber framing technology. It reopened to the public in 1994 with a comprehensive exhibit focusing on Louisiana's early history.

4. Historic New Orleans Collection
Photo courtesy of The Historic New Orleans Collection

A must for lovers of the city and for history buffs, the Historic New Orleans Collection connects the dots in more than three centuries of New Orleans lore. A museum, research center and publisher, the collection was founded in 1966 to preserve the history and culture of New Orleans and the Gulf South. Located in a historic complex of French Quarter buildings, the Historic New Orleans Collection also includes an impressive staffed research center – for doing some checking up on famous residents like voodoo queen Marie Laveau, should you get the urge. The research archives are especially focused on documents relating to the Battle of New Orleans and the War of 1812 in the South, including rare books, maps and plans that collectively tell the story of one of the greatest military upsets of all time. You can also tour the historic Williams home, which is full of gorgeous Louisiana antiques and a collection of Chinese porcelains.

3. Germaine Cazenave Wells Mardi Gras Museum

Take a stroll down Mardi Gras memory lane at this colorfully festive museum. Located above Arnaud's Restaurant, the free Germaine Cazenave Wells Mardi Gras Museum - named for the daughter of Count Arnaud, the restaurant's originator, has about two dozen gowns and costumes along with other bits of feathered and sequined memorabilia. Wells came by the collection honestly - she reigned as queen of some 22 Mardi Gras balls from 1937 to 1968, more than any other lovely to date. The traditional colors of Mardi Gras--purple, green and gold, symbolizing justice, faith and power, are ever present. It only takes about 15 minutes to see the collection, a fun detour.

2. Southern Food and Beverage Museum
Photo courtesy of Beth D'Addono

Come to this long awaited museum along Central City's Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard and find a cavernous new 16,000-square-foot space with an ambitious mission. The museum is home to a spiffy exhibition kitchen, a second location of Toups'Meatery restaurant and bar, a fab book and gift shop for foodies, and a series of central exhibits called Gallery of the Southern States of Taste. Here you can see a somewhat higgledy-piggledy series of displays dedicated to the food culture of 15 Southern states and the District of Columbia. The museum's home is part of the conversation. Formerly an old Dryades Street Market that dates to 1849, the building's terrazzo floors still bear the dividing marks of the original vendors' stalls. The Rouse's Culinary Innovation Center by Jenn-air/Whirlpool, a demonstration kitchen in the rear of the building, sits where the fish market used to be.

1. The National World War II Museum
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Originally named the National D-Day Museum, and located in New Orleans because the flat bottomed Higgins boats used in the invasion were made here, this museum is a must see for every history buff. Besides extensive and interactive exhibits on the Pacific and European theaters, the museum includes a special section on the Normandy Invasion and thousands of three-dimensional artifacts representative of the war years both at home and overseas. December 2014 marks the opening of the newest Pavilion, Campaigns of Courage: European and Pacific Theaters, and the Road to Berlin exhibit.From the "Steel Pot" helmet to the impressive Sherman tank, the Museum's artifacts bring the people and places of World War II into sharp focus. Housing large wartime aircraft and permanent galleries, the museum outlines the Allied strategy. In addition to the permanent and special exhibits, the museum also offers a multimedia experience. Allow 2.5 to 3 hours for a full tour, more if you are the type that really immerses yourself in the exhibits.