New Orleans Louisiana has much more than jazz. It also has some great museums.
National WWII Museum
The National WWII Museum is incredible. It takes you taking visitors inside the story of the war that changed the world. As on our last visit, we easily spent an entire day there. The museum continues to add new exhibits. This time we started at the exhibit on the Pacific Theater, named the Road to Tokyo, which wasn’t open on our last trip.
This section began with a discussion of how ill-prepared the U.S. was for war—even before the Japanese took out much of our Pacific fleet in Pearl Harbor. But even with this, and early Japanese victories in Guam, Wake Island, and the Philippines and our defective torpedoes took out almost as many of our own sips as they did the Japanese. However, we did manage to protect Australia in the Battle of the Coral Sea and make successful bombing raids on six Japanese cities in early 1942. And the U.S. launched a surprise attack and destroyed four Japanese aircraft carriers in the Battle of Midway.
After the U.S.’s first successful amphibious landing and six-month campaign in the Battle of Guadalcanal, it engaged in a successful “island hopping” strategy. We picked off a number of lightly defended islands in a way that allowed us to isolate more heavily defended Japanese bases, rather than attack them directly.
Tropical weather and diseases killed and disabled more of our men than did Japanese soldiers. We greatly benefitted by China’s actions (both Chiang Kai Shek and Mao Te Tung) in tying down more than 1 million Japanese troops in China alone. Still, the Japanese capture of Burma disrupted our ability to supply Chinese troops with weapons. It could have led to China’s subjugation were it not for a dangerous decision to supply Chinese resistance fighters via a Trans-Himalayan airlift.
This, combined with an American victory in the Marianas Islands and Saipan, put Japan on the defensive. It allowed us to sustain the bombing of the Japanese mainland. Our 1944 recapture of the Philippines then threatened the Japanese oil supply and allowed us to begin direct attacks on and win critical, but highly costly battles in Iwo Jima and Okinawa. The latter took three months to capture and cost more U.S. lives than any other naval battle in our country’s history.
By this time, the Japanese suffered more than 90,000 military and 150,000 civilian casualties. They began to desperately resort to over 2,000 suicidal kamikaze attacks. Japan also had fallen prey to low-altitude firebomb attacks that devastated their lumber and paper houses, killed more than 100,000 civilians, and took the island nation to the brink of starvation.
Ultimate victory, however, required more than bombing raids or starvation. It was estimated that an all-out invasion of Japan would have cost more than 250,000 American lives. In the end, however, this invasion never came. Just after FDR’s death, President Truman learned about the Manhattan Project and the successful development of the atomic bomb. Rather than risk hundreds of thousands of American lives, he made the fateful decision to use the bomb—first on Hiroshima, then on Nagasaki. Emperor Hirohito finally ordered a surrender on August 15, 1945, and signed an unconditional surrender on September 2.
European Theatre Section
We then took a quick refresher spin through the European Theater Section of the museum (see our 2016 post). Next we visited two additional exhibits—one on the American home front during the war and another on the elaborate planning and deceptions that surrounded the Allied invasion of Normandy.
The home front exhibition, called The Arsenal of Democracy”, began by explaining the foundations of the war. The punitive WWI-ending Versailles Treaty helped lead the German people to elect Hitler, who led a steady march to war. The emergence of Mussolini and Japan’s growing effort to control Asia and the Pacific fanned the war flames. Although Roosevelt attempted to help England, he was hampered in leading an isolationist nation still emerging from the Great Depression. Roosevelt effectively ignored Germany’s Blitzkrieg march across Europe, its bombing of England, Japan’s brutal massacre of hundreds of thousands of Chinese, and even German U-boats’ sinking of more than 400 U.S. ships. By the time Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, the U.S. military ranked about 25th in the number of troops (fewer than Romania).
Despite moving 16 million men (11 percent of the total U.S. population) into the military, U.S. civilians still managed to grow our total economy by an amazing 50 percent during the war. We dramatically increased the production of sophisticated equipment (including 300,000 planes), redefined production processes, improved labor productivity by 25 percent, and invented products (synthetic rubber and high-octane gas, not to speak of nuclear energy) and production techniques (such as pre-fabricating ships, shipping oil through pipelines, and so forth).
How did the United States do this? Through an unprecedented combination of government/industry cooperation, patriotism (as in the purchase of War Bonds to finance the war), relocation to industrial centers (25 percent of the population moved), and the introduction of women and blacks into the manufacturing workforce. By the time the war ended, and Europe and Japan lay in ruins, the U.S. had become the world’s dominant economy. It accounted for more than a quarter of global output and was prepared for a post-war boom that would lead the world.
Not to gloss over the drawbacks, the museum pointed out the racism that propaganda created. It portrayed Germans, Italians, and especially Japanese as almost subhuman (as their propaganda portrayed us). We trampled on constitutional rights (as with our internment of 120,000 Japanese) and the discrimination against African Americans in both civilian and military life.
The D-Day section explained the massive amount of planning and mobilization of six infantry and three aircraft divisions, 12,000 planes, and 6,000 ships. It discussed D’Day’s effects on British society, the elaborate rouses used to disguise plans for attacking at Normandy, and the critical, unpredictable role of weather resulting in the last-second go/no-go decision. It explained the roles that American, British, and Canadian forces played in taking each of their assigned beaches. The troops faced deadly perils is making inland advances relative to goals. Casualties were huge with one of every 18 soldiers who left Britain that morning dying. Ultimately 150,000 soldiers successfully landed on the heavily fortified coast in a single day. Surprisingly, the Allies had no contingency plan had the invasion failed!
As on our other 2 visits to the museum, we left in deep awe of the:
- Incredible sacrifices made during the war;
- The huge number of people killed: 85 million total people(including more than 50 million civilians;
- How Britain and the U.S. succeeded against all odds in maintaining democracy; and the
- Unanswerable question of what the world would have been like had they failed.
As most people know, Mardi Gras is a huge celebration in New Orleans. For the two months that precede Fat Tuesday, dozens of Mardi Gras parades ply the streets of New Orleans and its suburbs. Not surprisingly, New Orleans has a museum on Mardi Gras. It provides an interesting perspective on the history of some of the floats we have seen in previous Mardi Gras, and that we are likely to see in future ones.
Our visit began with a brief film that traced the history of the celebration. It began in 1657 through the formation of civic groups called Krewes. the Krewes conceive, design, fund, and staff the thousands of floats and the millions of beads, cups, doubloons, and other collectibles that they throw to anxious viewers.
From the first Krewe, Rex, through the big Super Krewes, beginning with Orpheus, there are now more than 50. Each Krewe stage a parade that can include dozens of floats, some of which are huge, extravagant, and very expensive. Each year Mardi Gras may have up to 500 floats with the figures and decorations costing tens of thousands of dollars apiece.
The tour examines the evolution of Mardi Gras floats through the eyes of Blaine Kern, the first artist who converted Mardi Gras float building from a passion into a business. He turned down a job with Disney to pursue his dream of living a perpetual Mardi Gra. He and his successors began building professional floats for the Mardi Gras krewes. They expanded the business to create all types of elaborate entertainment productions for the Disney Company, Las Vegas resorts, and hundreds of other businesses.
We then toured one of the company’s warehouses. We learned the process of building floats starting with sketches, moving to color drawings to models, and then using giant computer-controlled robots to create styrofoam foundations. The styrofoam is covered with paper mache, painted, and mounted on the huge floats. Many of the nighttime floats are then lit with fiber optic cables. The warehouse was filled with figures of hundreds of figures of real and imaginary people, animals, and figures that adorn the giant floats as well as dozens of fully-assembled floats from previous years’ parades.
The floats are built on large chassis and solid rubber tires. The krewes own and maintain them. However, Kern Studios retains the ownership of the figures and decorations it makes based on the specifications of the krewes. It, therefore, can reuse all of these designs, figures, and decorations as is, by repainting or re-milling and refinishing them. For example, it can reuse parts of one (such as a dragon’s wing) on a newly designed bird. The warehouse also has shelves filled with arms, legs, heads, and other parts that it can recondition and reuse as needed in future floats. Although it does make some figures of longer-lasting fiberglass instead of styrofoam, these are much more expensive.
The floats, of course, are just one component of the Mardi Gras experience. Each krewe member must make his or her own costume and buy their “throws”, the beads, doubloons and other giveaways that members dispense to the crowds.
This all translates into big business. Individual krewe member costs can exceed $1,000 per member for some parades, and this does not even guarantee a spot on the float. In the end, the money the krewes spend on staging the floats and that tourists pay (for hotel rooms, meals, and so forth) to watch them, pump well over $1 billion per year into the New Orleans area community.
New Orleans Museum of Art
The museum provides a very high-level overview of different styles of art. Dutch, Flemish, Mesoamerican, and Japanese art each have large galleries representing their works. Italian Baroque, 18th century France, Impressionism, and Native American are also represented. The museum also had a couple of interesting galleries of local Louisiana art and furniture.
A larger, multi-gallery exhibit of 20th century art attempts to cover dozens of styles, from Cubism through Abstract Impressionism, Surrealism, Pop Art, and so forth through one or two paintings, sketches, or sculptures apiece.
A couple of special exhibits included beaded prayer rugs and Keith Sonnier neon light-based sculptures. Another special exhibit displayed and described the boost that a 1920s-era line of imaginative, high-gloss “Fairyland Lusterware” provided for the then-lagging Wedgewood ceramics company.
We also made a one-hour drive to Louisiana plantation country to visit a huge plantation that was named for its quarter-mile lane surrounded by 28, 200-220-year-old Live Oaks. It was built between 1800 and 1816.
The last time we were in the area, we toured Laura Plantation. This time we toured Oak Alley. Built in 1837, it has a more varied history. It has variously served as a sugar plantation, a rice farm, a chicken farm, a cattle range, and a genteel country home. The home and lands are presented pretty much as they were when it was a sugar plantation. The visit included a guided tour of the mansion where we explored the first two floors which are furnished with period antiques.
The most memorable part of the home is the view of the eponymous alley—the quarter-mile lane of huge, beautiful, mature oaks that huddle over the slave quarters up to the imposing, Greek Revival mansion. And alternatively, of the view of the alley from the second-floor porch. The interior is well appointed and has some interesting features, especially its lovely dining room complete with a slave-operated dining room fan and the way the dried moss-filled mattresses were rolled each morning. However, many of the mansion’s period appointments were less interesting.
We found some of the estate’s self-guided exhibits interesting:
- The largest and most interesting exhibit is the reconstructed slave quarters. Exhibits describe the lives of the 220 slaves that lived at the plantation. Slaves were classified from skilled craftsmen and blacksmiths, to seamstresses, nurses, household slaves, and the lowest class, field slaves. You learned the rigors of their work and the injuries and illnesses that befell them, the need for their own gardens to supplement their meager rations, the tools they used, their clothing, and their religions. Punishments included being sold “down the river” from upriver plantations to those with hotter climates and longer, more strenuous work seasons.
- The sugar house traces the history and evolution of sugarcane growing and refining. A film and displays explain how the business operated in 1850 and how it has changed over the last 170 years.
- Other smaller exhibits portray the type of plantation blacksmith shops and how they forged metal objects, as well as the tent of a Civil War general.