History in the Round
The State Exhibit Museum in Shreveport, completed in 1939 and strategically located adjacent to the grounds and exhibit buildings of the Louisiana State Fair (then in its 33rd year), is arguably the most lavish of Franklin Roosevelt’s Depression-era public works projects in Louisiana.
As the Public Works Administration built its courthouses, post offices and museums around the nation, other New Deal agencies — the Works Progress and Works Programs Administrations (WPA) — provided artists to fill those buildings with paintings and sculptures, and Louisiana’s Exhibit Museum stands today as a product and major national landmark of those times.
The Exhibit Museum ranks with the Old State Capitol in Baton Rouge, in terms of statewide significance, as one of the most important of the 15 museums preserved and nurtured by the office of Secretary of State Tom Shedler.
The heart of the State Exhibit Museum, built of limestone blocks and sheathed in marble and granite, is its 1/8th-mile circular gallery, an impressive rotunda centered by a courtyard garden and flanked by two wings devoted to additional exhibit spaces. Restoration of the east wing’s 300-seat theater to its original appearance was completed in January and renamed in honor of Shreveport-born and world renown pianist Van Cliburn, who as a youngster performed recitals in the auditorium.
Viewed from any angle, the building’s exterior is the first work of art visitors see — a masterpiece of 1930s design atop its front steps awaits an immense, four-panel fresco by Louisiana’s preeminent WPA artist, Conrad Albrizio. Representing the achievements, energies and livelihoods of north and south Louisiana, the monumental mural serves as “an introduction,” says museum curator Nita Cole, “to what the museum represents in its interior displays.”
A few steps into the rotunda, a polished-aluminum railing 50 feet in circumference encloses a topographic map of Louisiana, sculpted in 1933 in plaster of Paris by Duncan Ferguson of the LSU Arts Department. The mural depicts the 64 parishes in various pastels as well as the Kisatchie National Forest in appropriate green, with land features like Mount Driskill clearly marked and all elevations revealed by Ferguson’s dramatic etching. The big map begins and ends the 1/8th-mile hike around the gallery.
Museum director Wayne Waddell believes that a walk around the rotunda leads inevitably to “a fuller understanding and appreciation of Louisiana’s history and the many educational, scientific, industrial, technological and agricultural contributions” made by our citizens. It was with that mission in mind that the circular gallery was created long ago. The result is a series of 21 stunning, three-dimensional scenes called dioramas, depicting in miniature, Louisiana life in the 1930s through ‘50s; scenes of cavernous salt mines and geologic cross-sections of a salt dome, offshore oil rig and inland oil and gas fields; agricultural themes including major crops, produce farming and ranching; plus the rural and industrial activities of tree farms, pulp and paper mills, sulfur mine and petroleum refineries.
Teams of WPA artists and craftsmen worked for months creating each diorama, perfecting every detail from the sweeping background paintings and beeswax human figures (in their wax-coated tissue-paper clothing) to the trees, fields, wagons, vintage autos, structures, tools and every other detail necessary to complete the scenes. The first five, according to scholar-in-residence Robert Galvan, were unveiled during the 1939 State Fair, after which the meticulous work on the series outlived the Depression and WPA — the final few were created between 1942 and 1958.
One of the largest scenes depicts the six concentric earthen ridges in West Carroll Parish that stretch ¾ mile along Bayou Maçon at the rim of the Mississippi River floodplain. Upon that diorama’s miniature ridges can be seen the shelters and activities of the people who occupied the place, at least seasonally, for purposes of religious ceremonies at outlying effigy mounds and trade networking, roughly between 3300 and 1100 B.C. It’s known as Poverty Point, and before it was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1962, a State Commemorative Area in 1975 and a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2014, this diorama had been the only source of public awareness that the Poverty Point people ever existed. Over time their descendants would include Choctaw, Caddo, Natchez and other tribes. We rely on the interpretations of pioneer archaeologists who began visiting in the 1920s and 30s — the likes of C.B. Moore, Clarence Webb and James Ford — and searcher/researchers like Jon Gibson who have followed in their footsteps.
Adjacent to the Poverty Point diorama, the west wing leads to a Caddo Nation display in the Clarence Webb Gallery. It features many examples of tools, ornamentals and highly decorative pottery. The highlight is the 30-foot, 1,000-year-old dugout “trading canoe” unearthed in 1983 from the bank of Red River.
Truth is the Caddo, and even Poverty Point people, are newcomers compared to dwellers of some sites found in the region. The creators of such artifacts as 7,000-year-old Clovis points from a Paleoindian site in Caddo Parish and the points and other objects found at the so-called Conley site on Loggy Bayou (Bossier/Webster parishes) date from 6200 to 5400 B.C. Other display cases present tools and crafts from those and other sites, up to and including items of traditional basketry still produced by Chitimacha and Coushatta artisans.
Elsewhere in the rotunda await exhibits on topics like regional transportation (railroad and shipping models), fishing (antique and modern lures and gear), hunting (the indigenous birds and animals of our forests and flyways), household items of the art deco era, an “Autographing History” exhibit of documents signed by notables including Gov. C.C. Claiborne, explorer John C. Fremont, Sam Houston and Andrew Jackson. There is even a pristine1921 Boor-Davis Touring Car — a relic of Louisiana’s only auto manufacturer, the Louisiana Motor Car Company of Shreveport.
Albrizio fresco covers museum facade
30-foot Caddo canoe
1921 Boor-David touring car
Louisiana State Exhibit Museum, 3015 Greenwood Road, 318-632-2020, laexhibitmuseum.org. Open weekdays 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Free admission.