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A New Chapter at the Louisiana State Exhibit Museum

Renovations refresh a lesser-known Shreveport museum

A New Chapter at the Louisiana State Exhibit Museum

Louisiana State Exhibit Museum

The opening of the Louisiana State Exhibit Museum’s new, $1.6 million archives building this summer will mark the beginning of a new chapter in the story of this unique structure. Completed in 1939 as a New Deal project, the rotunda-style museum located on the edge of the Louisiana State Fairgrounds was designed by Edward F. Neild, a Shreveport native who also  designed the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and participated in Truman-era renovations of the White House.

The building’s original footprint includes a circular museum gallery, two additional galleries in the west wing, a 333-seat auditorium in the east wing, and a courtyard with a fountain that was once home to a ten-foot-long alligator named Charlie Bob. The new archives building will include offices for staff (who currently work at makeshift workstations in the gallery), a research library, a conference room, a curatorial lab, and even a commercial kitchen.

With the space freed up by these changes, museum leadership anticipates being able to share more of the museum’s holdings with visitors. In a June 2019 interview with the Shreveport Times, museum supporter Dr. George Bakowski said that there are “a lot of artifacts stored in the basement and we can get them out.” It is hard to imagine the museum’s Native American exhibits improving much, as they’re already the institution’s crown jewel. Artifacts related to the Caddo Nation and the Poverty Point culture of northeast Louisiana make up the content of the Webb Native American Gallery, and documents and items related to the Caddo culture can be seen throughout the museum. At the heart of the Webb Gallery, visitors can view an intact, thirty-three-foot-long ceremonial canoe dating back to 1000 BCE, one of the largest prehistoric watercraft ever discovered in North America and believed to be used for travel between ceremonial sites. It is an incredible thing to see.

Outside of the Webb Gallery, the museum is an eclectic mash-up of Western culture. Beeswax dioramas depicting agrarian life in early Caddo Parish surround dozens of glass cases filled with mid-century fishing lures, Civil War armaments, photographs by O. Winston Link, and paintings by Clementine Hunter (including a large, well-regarded rendering of zinnias, one of Hunter’s most prized subjects). Visitors can even see the stuffed remains of Charlie Bob, the alligator who once roamed the courtyard.

It is entirely understandable if this museum feels, to some visitors, like a collection of bric-a-brac. If it is bric-a-brac, it is Louisiana’s most interesting bric-a-brac, from the wooly mammoth’s tusk found in a riverbank right down to the Cotillion gown worn by a future Junior League president in 1954. Any visitor with an imagination and a taste for the history of civilization will appreciate the museum’s succinct journey from prehistoric man to oil man.

Chris Jay loves living in Shreveport. With his wife Sara Hebert, he runs the All Y’all storytelling series and podcast.