Louisiana history, never simple to navigate, gets trickier when the power is out, the roof has been mangled by a hurricane, the 19th century Audubon prints are stashed among the 20th century jazz instruments and you’re using a flashlight to pick your way through the mold-marred rooms of the state museum in New Orleans. It gets downright daunting when your cultural rescue mission turns into a hasty retreat.
“We’re in evacuation mode,” said Los Angeles-based independent conservator Chris Stavroudis into his cellphone Friday afternoon, just three days after his arrival with a team of museum professionals from across the country.
Stavroudis had arrived Tuesday to join a sort of cultural conservation SWAT team, composed of volunteer museum professionals from across the country, all hoping to help measure and mend Katrina-related flooding damage to artifacts and documents in public and private collections. They did get a brief and eerie look at Louisiana’s imperiled collections.
But by Friday afternoon, as Hurricane Rita advanced on Texas and Louisiana, rain was falling in New Orleans, another round of flooding had just begun in the city’s 9th Ward, and these would-be rescuers were just another batch of evacuees lining up for flights out of Baton Rouge.
“It’s so demoralizing for everyone here,” Stavroudis said. “We just feel so terrible.”
“It’s amazing, and they feel the irony to their very bones,” said Caroline Kennedy, director of the West Baton Rouge Museum.
Most of the conservation team had arrived in Katrina country Monday and Tuesday, setting up house in a borrowed RV parked at an alligator farm outside Baton Rouge.
Among the team’s tools: hard hats, respirators and B-72, an acrylic resin that can halt deterioration and serves as the bread-and-butter of the conservator’s trade. Their enemies: wind, water, mold (a threat to artifacts and human health alike), termites and time. Their plan was to spend six days in Louisiana looking for cultural trouble, then hand their van keys over to a second team of fresh volunteers, who would set off on another search for troubled artifacts.
“If they’re under water, that’s bad. If they’re half in water, that’s worse,” Stavroudis said.
The team members would shower at a nearby truck stop, and drive parish to parish in a rented van, working telephones, computers and a list of about 100 likely cultural locations. Hampton, Va.-based collections specialist Conover Hunt, who went to college in the New Orleans area, would serve as team leader and driver.
Other members included archivist Sharon Bennett of Charleston, S.C.; Raleigh, N.C.-based independent conservator David Goist; and Catherin Lewis, director and curator of West Bay Common School Children’s Museum in League City, Texas. The effort was arranged by the Washington, D.C.-based American Institute for Conservation of Historic & Artistic Works and the American Assn. for State and Local History.
On Wednesday, the group had warmed up with a stop at Destrehan Plantation on River Road, a scenic drive famous for its antebellum plantations. It turned out Destrehan, built in the late 1700s and fronted by a bold row of white Greek columns, had come through almost unscathed.
“One moldy couch,” Stavroudis said. “Very minimal.”
Thursday brought a far bigger challenge: the Old Mint Building in New Orleans’ French Quarter, home to most of the Louisiana State Museum’s collections -- hundreds of thousands of artifacts and documents, from the colonial records of the French and Spanish authorities who ran New Orleans in the 18th and early 19th centuries to the instruments used by 20th century jazz luminaries.
Escorted by museum officials and local police, the team tiptoed through the dank and darkened structure for more than three hours, beginning with the first floor, whose rooms had already been emptied by museum staffers, their precious contents redistributed to safer places.
“Twilight zone,” Bennett said, summarizing the scene.
The Old Mint building, which stands on relatively high ground in the French Quarter, suffered no flooding during or after Katrina. But it had been without power or a generator for more than three weeks. Inside, where curators like to keep temperatures around 72, the thermometer read 90 degrees.
“Colonial paper was cloth,” Hunt said. “And cloth absorbs water. And then if the cloth is too fragile, the water will break the fibers. So these colonial records are textiles. And you always get textiles out first.”
But a good chunk of the museum’s holdings remained in the powerless building, waiting until authorities have the luxury of thinking at length about cultural preservation. One vault -- kept closed to keep moisture out -- still held the Code Noir, the 1724 document, signed by Louis XV, in which the French Crown set ground rules for the trading and treatment of slaves.
In a city with a sudden and acute housing shortage, locations aren’t easy to secure, and “you can’t just go in there and grab stuff without having a place to take it, and you can’t mix it up with clean artifacts,” Hunt said. “It’s like quarantine.”
If you read the advice on recovery of paper and most other materials, said Stavroudis, “it says, ‘Within 24 hours, do this, this and this ... " Any treasures still unprotected in southern Louisiana have been at risk for 20 days or more. The Old Mint building’s roof was secured in part by plastic sheets -- highly vulnerable in strong winds like those expected from Rita.
By Thursday afternoon, the weather had changed everything. Instead of working in the first storm’s wake, the group was in a second storm’s path and nerves were fraying.
By early Friday afternoon, they were in Baton Rouge, helping tape windows and otherwise storm-proof a historical museum. The National Hurricane Center was predicting that Rita would be delivering further rain, wind and tidal swells to the New Orleans area, with the worst of it due this morning.
By late Friday, Stavroudis was booked on a flight out and his teammates were expecting to leave in following days.
“They’re battened for a nice, big storm,” Stavroudis said mournfully. “We were too early.”
“It was really nice to have these folks here to help us shore up,” said Kennedy of the West Baton Rouge Museum. “Unfortunately, I think they now have a much better idea of what we’ve been experiencing these last few weeks.”