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Inside The Historic New Orleans Collection’s $38M expansion

The new exhibition center celebrates its grand opening with a block party May 18

Photos courtesy Anna Grundmann LeDonne of Gambel Communications

After undergoing a $38 million expansion, The Historic New Orleans Collection (THNOC) is twice as big as it used to be—and with new interactive exhibits and a free block party scheduled for May 18, it’s poised to be twice as fun and educational.

“This expansion is part of our decades-long effort to be the greatest possible local history museum,” THNOC Deputy Director Daniel Hammer stated in a press release. “We want New Orleanians to know us as a critical place for engagement about who they are and where they come from; no matter where they live, their story is part of The Historic New Orleans Collection.”

In the works for 15 years, the expansion project added a 35,000-square-foot campus at 520 Royal Street, a townhouse built in 1816. One of its interactive exhibits guides attendees through the building’s history via virtual reality (VR) binoculars.

“You see different scenes of what the courtyard used to look like architecturally as well as the range of usage of the space,” said multimedia artist and New Orleans native Xiao Xiao, who collaborated with fabricator Abe Geasland and fellow Massachusetts Institute of Technology alums Alan Kwan and Bjorn Sparrman for the VR stand.

VR scenes depict the courtyard in the 1820s, when the building functioned as a grocery store; the 1880s, when it became a dilapidated, laundry-hung workspace for people from the neighboring tenement houses; and the 1920s, when tourism launched and bohemians took over the French Quarter.

Other exhibits include a self-playing Aeolian organ and an interactive map of the Vieux Carre. The inaugural changing exhibition, “Art of the City: Postmodern to Post-Katrina,” features contemporary work by more than 75 artists, including Krista Jurisich, Luis Cruz Azaceta, Gina Phillips, Candy Chang, Brandan “Bmike” Odums and Rontherin Ratliff. It is funded by The Helis Foundation and runs through October 6.

“A lot of people think of history as this static thing in the past,” Xiao said. “The goal of having this be interactive is to give people a way to immerse themselves in the past using technology of today. ... I hope it gets people to think of history in a different way.”

The new building includes a gift shop and a restaurant, Café Cour, run by Carmo alums Dana and Christina Honn.
Displays include this segregation-era streetcar seat.
The “Chronoviseur” installation uses VR binoculars to show how the courtyard at 520 Royal Street looked at various points in its 200-year history.

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