New Orleans Museum to Reclaim Artifacts

After Hurricane Katrina, the Louisiana State Museum in New Orleans' French Quarter evacuated 200,000 artifacts to Baton Rouge, where they've sat in storage ever since. Now the artifacts are all coming home.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Coming up, Dvorak as American folkie. But first, every weekday a truck or two pulls up to the Louisiana State Museum in the French Quarter of New Orleans.

Unidentified Male: You all ready?

SIMON: Workmen haul huge boxes off hydraulic lifts. The museum is bringing back 200,000 artifacts from storage in Baton Rouge. That's where they've been since Hurricane Katrina struck the city nearly three years ago.

NPR's Neda Ulaby followed curators as they reinstall the museum's collection.

NEDA ULABY: Hurricane Katrina blew the copper roof right off of the old U.S. Mint building, which is one of the Louisiana State Museum's nine sites in the French Quarter. Right before the storm, staff moved everything in the three-story building to the second floor. After Katrina, collections head Greg Lambousy says it took a month and a half, two to four truckloads a day to evacuate New Orleans' treasures.

Mr. GREG LAMBOUSY (Collections Head, Louisiana State Museum): All of the jazz collection, our entire archive and library, the great majority of the decorative arts and science and technology collections, which included a lot of oversized artifacts like boats.

ULABY: Bringing the stuff back has been a pain and a sensuous pleasure for Lambousy. He's loving the smell of the collections as they return, from old manuscripts to musical instruments.

Mr. LAMBOUSY: If jazz has a smell, it's the smell of jazz.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LAMBOUSY: But its mandolins, and clarinets, and trumpets, and drums, and, you know, a lot of them are wooden and, you know, that smell of wood, the smell of leather from the cases. Even metal has its own kind of smell sometimes.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. LAMBOUSY: This is Louis Armstrong's first clarinet.

ULABY: The bell is so battered and scarred looking. It almost looks as if it bears the traces of all of the music that flew out of it.

(Soundbite of music)

ULABY: The clarinet dates from 100 years ago, from Armstrong's youth at the Municipal Waif's Home for boys. Without this, Armstrong's very first instrument, jazz would not have sounded the same.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. LAMBOUSY: Over there is Sydney Bouchet's soprano saxophone.

ULABY: Greg Lambousy says this is the world's largest collection of instruments owned and played by important jazz men. The Louisiana State Museum has imported curators to help with the move's staggering logistics. Alison Leone(ph) and Leslie Paisley came down from the Art Conservation Center in Williamstown, Massachusetts. They're both concerned about long-range planning.

Ms. ALISON LEONE: One of our big goals all along was to create housings that would serve both to transport, and then for long-term safe storage for the objects.

ULABY: I hate to ask, but is that partly because of your fear that Katrina isn't the last such storm?

Ms. LESLIE PAISLEY: It won't be. I mean, we always have to prepare for the next thing, whether it's our lifetime or someone else's.

ULABY: The Louisiana State Museum at the old U.S. Mint in New Orleans is planning a new permanent exhibition about Hurricane Katrina for next year. Its artifacts include seats from the Superdome and Coast Guard lift baskets. So far they're still in storage.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News, New Orleans.

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