Valli Herman: Gulf Coast Conservators Fear Cultural Treasures Lost

Roundup: Talking About History

It may have been just a stack of old vinyl albums, travel brochures, ticket stubs or even restaurant menus that were stashed away, forgotten, in a cabinet. Though their importance pales in comparison to lost lives and homes, the destruction of such relatively trivial items in the Katrina disaster means key artifacts of identity, history and culture of the region are gone forever.

Flooded New Orleans has conservationists and collectors in despair about what history might have washed away or been irreparably damaged in museums and in homes.

New Orleans was a treasure trove of regionally specific culture where surreal Mardi Gras memorabilia coexisted with sober Victorian furniture, where stately mansions and shotgun shacks shared a history defined by jazz, Cajun cooking, slavery and even voodoo.

The largest and best collections of regional significance are, of course, stored and collected by the region's museums, colleges, antiques dealers and collectors -- institutions squarely in Katrina's path.

Though many institutions moved or protected their collections, according to reports from the American Assn. of Museums, flooding damaged a storage area at Tulane University's Newcomb Art Gallery and may be causing mildew at its Museum of Natural History. The New Orleans African American Museum is assumed to have major flood damage and several collections at a new Mardi Gras museum in Biloxi, Miss., also are assumed damaged.

But it's not just fine art or museum collections that have conservators worried. It's the ephemera that gets passed down through generations, the documents of everyday life that suddenly have become quite poignant and valuable.

In areas of the region that are being called unreclaimable, even a previously insignificant piece could become a meaningful artifact of pre-storm life.

"There is probably all kinds of material culture that has been wrecked," said Victoria Steele, head of special collections at the UCLA Charles E. Young Research Library. "We all keep things, little mementos, that were meaningful to us." According to U.S. Census data, nearly 80% of New Orleans residents are Louisiana natives, and as such, the keepers of its history.

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