Bars and nightclubs may currently be closed due COVID-19 restrictions, but visitors thristing for a taste of New Orleans can still drink in local culture at the city’s many museums. Get out and get going.
New Orleans Museum of Art
NOMA counts more than 40,000 objects among its impressive permanent collection. Downstairs is devoted to European works from the early Renaissance and Baroque periods, while the second floor is more modern-minded and contemporary focused. Further up, African masks and carved figures meld with Japanese scroll paintings and Indian art. In between you’ll find a number of special exhibits. Don’t want to be cooped up? Head to the outdoor sculpture garden for 90 masterpieces spread amid 11 artful acres.
Ogden Museum of Southern Art
Start on the fifth floor where you’ll find “Louisiana Contemporary,” an annual showcase of emerging talents from around the state. Scope out the rooftop sculptures and sweeping views, then explore the fourth-floor “Entwined” exhibit, which spotlights modern-day artists who incorporate age-old techniques of wrapping and binding in their works. The third floor features selections from the Ogden’s vast holdings, ranging from Walter Anderson and Clementine Hunter landscapes to photography by Dorothea Lange, Ernest Withers and others.
Historic New Orleans Collection
With its interior galleries shuttered during the pandemdic, the Historic New Orleans Collection moved operations to its four courtyards, with free displays detailing the rich history related to each. Charting the Vieux Carré’s 300-year evolution, the state-of-the-art facility (expected to reopen this month) caters to the curious interested in learning more about the city’s backstory. Delve even deeper with its equally free French Quarter Tours app, which offers eight, self-guided themed excurions (people of color, literature, music, etc.) through the centuries-old neighborhood.
The Louisiana State Museum system counts a number of French Quarter properties, each with its own specific focus. Adjacent to St. Louis Cathedral, the Cabildo, site of the 1803 signing of the Louisiana Purchase, puts the past into perspective with such rare holdings as Napoleon's death mask, along with a variety of historical exhibits. The Presbytere (on the opposite side of the cathedral) houses “It’s Carnival Time in Louisiana,” a wide-ranging overview of Fat Tuesday festivities, and “Living With Hurricanes,” which recounts the destruction wrought by Katrina and Rita.
New Orleans Jazz Museum
The Old U.S. Mint, another state-run facility, holds the world’s largest collection of jazz-related instruments and ephemera. Here you’ll discover Louis Armstrong’s first cornet, the first jazz recording dating to 1917 and a host of music-concentrated exhibits. “New Orleans Music Observed” juxtaposes artist Noel Rockmore’s iconic Preservation Hall portraits from the 1960s with the current-day works of daughter Emilie Rhys. Other displays trumpet the legendary careers of Louis Prima and Professor Longhair and examine local drumming traditions.
Named among the 50 best things to do in the world by Time Out, this sprawling 35,000 square-foot space (just steps from the new JAMNOLA) is home to muralist Brandan Odums’ empowering depictions of African American struggles and Black history heros, from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to Trayvon Martin. The popular site is currently closed to the public, with Odums creating new pieces to add to the collection. But it’s worth a visit, even if you don’t find doors open: The aerosol artist’s massive creations spill outside onto the building itself.
National WWII Museum
One could spend days exploring this top-ranked destination’s ever-expanding campus…hence its onsite hotel. In addition to the 4D “Beyond All Boundaries” (a must-see), high-flying U.S. Freedom Pavilion (ditto) and immersive “Road to” Tokyo and Berlin galleries, the museum mounts rotating exhibits. Currently on view: “Remembered Light,” featuring works fashioned from glass fragments collected from damaged European churches, and “Ghost Army,” a salute to the ingenious inflatables and decoys used to fake out Hitler’s forces.
In a city that claims to have poured the nation’s first cocktail (the Sazerac), it’s fitting that there would be a museum devoted to the art of imbibing. This free, 48,000-square-foot venue raises a glass to New Orleans' love of libations, tracing the city’s tippling timeline from the 1800s to today through a variety of interactive displays. Learn how to make classic quaffs from virtual bartenders, while pouring over local cocktail culture. A two-story still produces rye whiskey daily.
Backstreet Cultural Museum
Founder Sylvester Francis (who sadly passed away in late August) collected hundreds of videos of famous jazz funerals over the years, which are now housed in what was once a Tremé neighborhood funeral parlor. But this small museum has less to do with death than with New Orleans’ love for living large. A number of elaborately decorated Mardi Gras Indian suits are also on display, as are displays spotlighting the Baby Dolls and the Skull & Bone Gang, providing insight to the city’s long-running and much-cherished African American traditions.
Southern Food and Beverage Museum
Food for thought. Located in a revamped, circa-1849 market, this celebration of Southern foodways and culinary traditions reaches beyond Louisiana to serve up a veritable gumbo of regional flavors. Dig into displays on Carolina barbecue, Kentucky burgoo and Florida’s Cuban influences, along with a large collection of retro cookware and kooky kitchen gadgets. Booze and spirits are also on the menu with a toast-worthing collection of vintage barware and bottles, including absinthe items.