In late February, Vermilionville’s Curatorial Department took a professional development day for touring and talking to the staff of two museums. Curator, Collections Manager, Restoration Specialist, and Historic House Custodian are tasked with the interpretation, exhibition, policies, maintenance, and management of the artifacts and historic structures here at the living history museum and folklife park. Even with 6 college degrees between the 4 of us, we all found new ideas and inspiration on the field trip.
We visited two museums in New Iberia, a city on the Bayou Teche with a population of about 30,000 people. We arrived in New Iberia early for our meeting, so the Collections Manager led us along the boardwalk to an overlook of a grassy spot with white markers in the ground. It was a beautiful partly sunny day and the larger-than-life sculptures distracted me until the Collections Manager explained that the white markers outlined a sunken sidewheel steamboat called the Teche, encapsulated in dirt and time. The sense of awe and desire to learn more that this simple outline inspired in the rest of us is what we hope to provide at our museum!
We left the Bayou Teche and walked up the street to the Bayou Teche Museum, an exhibits based museum in a historic structure, for a tour and an opportunity to ask the museum director and board members questions. We watched the well-crafted introduction video, spoke with the director, and toured the beautifully designed exhibits with a board member. In one display, guess what we saw? Pictures and models of the very steamboat that we visited that morning! The display really brought to life the scale and detail of the boat, as well as the archaeological discovery and ongoing research on the boat.
We had lunch at Beau Soleil Café, but not before stopping to view the plaque of Dr. Emma Wakefield-Paillet, the first African American woman to receive a medical degree in the state of Louisiana. This plaque was installed in 2018, thanks to the work of one of her descendants, Dr. Phebe Hayes, who also generously donates her time to the Vermilionville Living History Museum Foundation.
After we reflected on our time at the Bayou Teche Museum, the four of us drove to visit the Paul Schexnayder Studio and Gallery, housed in the Erath Building. Placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1995, this fascinating building has tall doors and strategically-placed gables to hide its 6 chimneys!
You can find August Erath’s initials on the exterior of the building and a description of the building’s history…but what you may not know is that August and his brother, Victor, previously owned the Erath Ice & Bottling Co., aka Attakapas Steam Company, aka the Attakapas brewery, and probably more variations that we haven’t found yet. Known for selling ice, seltzer water, and ginger soda, the Erath brothers even brewed and sold their own beer for a short time in the late 1800s. We don’t know for sure but it’s possible they were the first micro-brewery in Acadiana!
Following the Erath Building, we went to the Shadows on the Teche, an historic house museum and the first National Trust for Historic Preservation site in the Gulf South. The National Trust only maintains 27 sites open to the public in the United States of America. We met with the Director of Facilities who graciously offered her time to show us the house and collections storage. The filing, boxing, and organization of their collections storage was #goals for us.
Something I learned on our outing was that when sugar cane matures, it "flowers" and grows extensions similar in appearance to cat tails. Due to the inconsistent and unusual weather this year some farmers decided not to harvest the sugar cane, and instead let it continue to grow. Out of curiosity, I have been looking around as I drive to see any examples of this but have not found any so far. I was dying to know what it looked like so I cheated and googled it! Here is a photo I found:
Out of all the years I have lived around here, I have never seen or heard of anything this and find it fascinating. I was overall impressed with New Iberia's downtown architecture and interesting history. My favorite of all would have to be the visit to the Shadows on the Teche. Being able to tour the Weeks home was an absolute treat. The house itself was incredible and really got my wheels turning when looking at the design and decorative elements. It's a shame to say but I had no idea that a place like this existed just around the corner from us. I was also surprised to learn that William Weeks Hall was an artist. During our behind the scenes tour we got to see some of his art that is being stored upstairs, which was very special to see. Downstairs we got to see his studio and some of the items used to make the art. Lastly, one of the most striking elements of all was the landscaping. This garden courtyard was truly mesmerizing. I could have spent hours wandering through its paths. I found this really cool aerial blueprint of the house and its surrounding landscape.
Getting to meet the woman who keeps everything running smoothly and maintains the property was very inspiring. She is an extremely hard working and organized person and I took many mental notes for my personal development. In conclusion it was wonderful to see how each of us were able to take away something useful and of interest from this outing. What speaks to me was different than what spoke to my coworkers. I loved being able to see each of us get excited and geek out about different things.