Louisiana, especially the southeast region of the state, is well known for its historic plantations like Oak Alley, Whitney, Laura, Houmas House, etc. They also don’t lack for museums that interpret their rich history from the French colonial era to the Civil Rights movement. One such museum that does an admirable and thorough job at this interpretation is the Louisiana Rural Life Museum, operated by Louisiana State University. Since the 1970s, the university has provided a place for the public to learn about a range of rural experiences in Louisiana, from the poor white farming families to the enslaved and paid labor of the elite planters. Their main mode of this interpretation is through the actual architecture and material culture of working class Louisianians. Their purpose has always been, “To increase the appreciation of our heritage and the way of life of our ancestors, their hardships, toils, vision, inspiration, and determination by preserving something of the architecture and artifacts from our rural past,” according to Steele and Ione Burden.
The visitor experience is split between the indoor museum and a vast outdoor walking tour that explores two different rural lifestyles during the 18th and 19th centuries. The first exhibits how the average, non-slaveholding farming family would have lived. This includes the sort of buildings one might expect to see in a rural town or village, such as the Split-Cypress Barn, a little country church, shotgun house, dogtrot house, log house, Acadian cottage, and a jail.
The second section is devoted to what went on behind the Big House. This includes a number of cabins for the enslaved – all interpreted a little differently for the average cabin, a Reconstruction Era cabin, a sick cabin, etc. – as well as the Overseer’s house, and a number of buildings that would have been commonplace on a large plantation or in the neighborhood of one, such as a blacksmith shop, a sugar pavilion where they refined sugarcane for market, a schoolhouse, commissary, and post office. Sprinkled between these larger buildings are smaller features like a corncrib, cemetery, pigeon cote, a plantation bell, and well. All of this nestled on a piece of land that feels so far and disconnected from civilization that one might forget they weren’t nearly in the center of the bustling and busy Baton Rouge.
A few of these buildings were reconstructed from historical reference, but the majority of them are original to the period and were carefully relocated to the site. The interpretation panels show the “before” picture, as well as explaining the purpose, use, and personal history of the structure. The best part is that each building is decked out with the trappings of rural life. The rooms are set up as if they had been occupied for years and the tenants only left for the afternoon. In some buildings, like the country church, you can walk right into history itself. Walking along the dirt paths of this outdoor exhibit is a full immersive experience.
Once you’ve had your fill of the outdoors, the “Exhibit Barn” is your next stop to browse the thousands of artifacts from rural Louisiana life, stretching across the centuries to just a handful of decades ago. One can find all manner of objects used in the home, on the farm, and in the smalltown businesses. They even have a few display cases exclusively for medical tools and supplies that look positively primitive to our modern standards. Housed safely in the Exhibit Barn is a collection of several carts and carriages (and a hearse or two) that would have been used by all classes. One can easily spend an hour or two perusing through the extensive collection and find just about anything and everything – including some interesting coffins.
The Exhibit Barn shares a wall with the more traditional museum aspect of the visit, though it’s recommended that you start from the giftshop/ticket booth first. The museum begins with a look at how our contemporary Louisiana culture – what we would consider Creole or Cajun culture – has deep roots in the rural and urban culture of the past. The panels explain everything from food to music to religion, and how each has its origins in the amalgamated traditions of the French, Spanish, Irish, and Africans who settled Louisiana.
Next is a thorough explanation of slavery in Louisiana, accompanied by artifacts, quotes from Solomon Northup in his book Twelve Years A Slave, and a slave prison that came straight off the plantation. Each aspect of the life of the enslaved is explained and interpreted for the visitor, not pulling the punches on the dark and unsettling truth of the institution. Sugar plantations in Louisiana became the site of tremendous tragedy and hardships for the enslaved who were held in bondage, rivaling only the cotton plantations of the deep south.
From there, visitors are told about the people and everyday lives of planters, overseers, and common farmers from the colonial era to American annexation, and through the Civil War. They devote a small portion of their exhibit to Civil War history, providing the narratives of those who lived through it. Next is the Reconstruction Era and a hefty section for the Industrial Era with its new appliances and machinery that drug Louisiana out of the dark ages and into the 20th century.
If one has time and the season is right for it, the Botanic Gardens that sheltered the Louisiana Rural Life Museum from the rest of the world provides a scenic excursion. Tour through their “Trees and Trails,” three miles of serene walking paths through the Burden Woods, as well as the Rose Garden, Children’s Garden, All-America Selections Garden, Stone Camellia Collection, Crowder Camellia Collection, Herb Garden, Tropical Garden, Memory Garden, Barton Arboretum, Oak Grove, StoryWalk loop, and the historic Windrush Gardens.
I spent two days at the Louisiana Rural Life Museum, only because my travel plans didn’t allow for one continuous visit. For those who really like to take in history, you should arrive early and plan to spend the entire day at the museum. The ideal flow would be to walk the museum first, then tour the Exhibit Barn (there’s a door connecting the end of the museum and the beginning of the Exhibit Barn) then tour the outside. This will equip you with as much information as possible to fit the outdoor exhibit with its historical context. Though the museum closes at 5pm, they start closing up the outside buildings about 4:30pm, and you don’t want to miss out on anything the interiors have to offer. However, if you’re pressed for time and you want to guarantee that you see everything outside, start there first. Should you get hungry, there are a few fast food eateries in the vicinity, though I would recommend packing a picnic lunch and stay on site, because the traffic along Essen Lane can get pretty crazy and backed-up, depending on the time of day.
I’m a huge Louisiana history nerd, but this museum blew me away. Growing up, I had visited Acadiana Village and Vermilionville with my dad, and this was almost exactly like these two outdoor museums and then some. I especially appreciated the care and consideration taken in the delicate interpretation of slavery and its atrocities. I had done some research into the use of sugar kettles and it was nice to see them within the context of their historic use with the sugar pavilion. Seeing it in a historical etching is one thing, but to see it in person is something else. And I’m always a fan of full, immersive museum experiences, so getting to walk in and out of the houses was a real treat.
My favorite part of my visit was the Schuler Statue (formerly called the “Uncle Jack” statue). When I saw this statue from a distance, a chill swept through me. I knew what it was for. It captures the likeness of an elderly black man, hat tipped forward as if in greeting, eyes cast down with a soft smile. It was initially made “in grateful recognition of the arduous and faithful service of the good darkies of Louisiana”, donated in 1927. Commissioned by Jackson Lee Bryan to sculptor Hans Schuler, the statue was erected in Natchitoches, Louisiana in the height of the Jim Crow era as the Ku Klux Klan resurged as a white supremist terrorist organization. It symbolizes the ideal image and role of the black race in the South, submissive and docile as the enslaved blacks of bygone days. It was a subtle warning to the blacks of the new century that stepping outside of the social order was frowned upon, and often met with violence. The statue itself is a testament to the shift in society that took place in the century following the Civil War and how the generations of free blacks following the 13th Amendment still had so much to fight against in order for their rights and freedoms to be recognized. It’s a physical and real image of what racism was – and in many cases, what it still is today.
It was my favorite part because the Louisiana Rural Life Museum did an excellent job of interpreting the statue, why it was made, and that it still serves a place in our history as a new kind of warning that racism is not something relegated to the past, but must still be grappled with today. I like the wording on one of these panels that reads, “Museums collect and preserve objects to learn about the past and learn from the past. This principle applies equally to subjects that we are proud to share as well as those that are hurtful and unpleasant… We do this not to glorify the past or to place inauthentic meaning in the objects. Instead, we preserve and talk about these objects to better inform our shared history, in this case the role of race in the rural South and how it has shaped our lives today.”
The Rural Life Museum’s Visitor Center is open daily from 8:00am to 5:00pm.
Admission: Adults – $10
Children – $8
Children under 6 – Free
Senior Citizens – $9
Address: 4560 Essen Lane, Baton Rouge, LA 70809