I confess my wife and I are prone to travel like Clark Griswold in the hit 1980s movie National Lampoon’s Vacation. We hit the tourist stops such as notable monuments and famous restaurants, but like the Griswold family patriarch, we also seek out oddities.
There’s no shortage of similarly unusual stops for the Louisiana traveler, specifically some of the state’s museums. We have venues statewide focusing on our history and culture, tracking our story from the colonial period to the present while exploring the origin and evolution of traditions like our Cajun and Creole cuisine, indigenous music like jazz and zydeco and even our Mardi Gras celebrations. Then again, we have some museums that are really out there, and I’m not referring to locations off the beaten path. Here are some suggestions to delve into your inner Griswold spirit while traveling Louisiana.
The New Orleans Voodoo Spiritual Temple. This dimly lit and eerie site on Rampart Street is filled with altars and ritualistic items including voodoo talismans, art and sculpture, human skulls and bones and even big snakes (yes, live ones). Also on-site is Priestess Miriam, who not only educates visitors on the city’s voodoo traditions and legends but also provides services including spiritual consultations, blessings and bone readings. The gift shop also offers charms and dolls for good luck and not-so-good luck, which are made by the priestess herself.
The New Orleans Pharmacy Museum. Also in the city’s French Quarter, this museum is housed in the 19th century apothecary of the first U.S. licensed pharmacist, Louis J. Dufilho Jr. Exhibits include hand-blown medicine bottles containing early crude drugs, early patent medicines, medical herbs and gris-gris potions used by local voodoo practitioners. Visitors can also see early surgical tools and learn about alternative medicine of the day, such as bloodletting via leeches.
Coca-Cola and Bibles:
The Biedenharn Museum and Gardens in Monroe. This property’s namesake, Joseph Biedenharn, was the first person to ever bottle Coca-Cola for public distribution and sale. (Until the late 1800s, it was only available as a fountain drink.) The museum has an extensive Coca-Cola memorabilia exhibit, including vintage signs and what is said to be the first Coca-Cola delivery truck. The museum’s Bible exhibit, a collection started by Biedenharn’s daughter Emy-Lou, includes dozens of rare books including an original 1611 King James Bible, a 1523 Johann Preul Bible, a 1633 Eliot Indian Bible and a page from the 1454-55 Gutenberg Bible, which was the first book to be printed and mass produced via movable metal type.
Offshore oil drilling:
The International Petroleum Museum and Exposition in Morgan City. Its nickname is “The Rig Museum” because of “Mr. Charlie,” a 220-by-85 foot barge that drilled for oil in the nearby Gulf of Mexico from 1954 to 1986. The 58-man rig was the first transportable, submersible drilling rig, and it revolutionized global offshore oil exploration and drilling. It is said that Mr. Charlie’s American industrial history significance was so great it was considered after its retirement for display by the Smithsonian. The Smithsonian declined, however, because it had no galleries big enough to house the rig.
Maximum security incarceration:
The Louisiana State Penitentiary Museum at Angola. You can’t tour the actual prison—the largest maximum security facility in the U.S. with 6,300 inmates—but this museum chronicles life behind the walls of this former plantation turned penal institution that is nicknamed “Alcatraz of the South.” Memorable items in the museum are the state’s official electric chair, “Gruesome Gertie,” which put 87 men and women to death before Louisiana’s shift to lethal injection executions in 1991, and a collection of homemade shivs, weapons and assorted contraband taken from inmates over the years.
And, the strange:
The Abita Mystery House in Abita Springs. Also known as the UCM (you-see-‘em) Museum, this site’s mystery is apparently its theme because the subject matter is literally all over the place. Exhibits include miniatures scenes of a jazz funeral and a Mardi Gras parade as well as thousands of folk art objects ranging from pottery and combs to vintage postcards and license plates. Adjacent to the main gallery (an abandoned vintage gas station) is the glass-adorned and vintage bicycle-filled House of Shards, and throughout the property are sculptures of alligator hybrid animals, such as the “dogigator” and a largemouth “bassigator.”