Generations of locals and tourists alike have learned about Louisiana history with the help of life-sized figures that have stood silently and without flinching for the past 51 years.
But those historic wax figures in a French Quarter museum are about to retire. Dave McNamara takes us on one last tour of the Musee' Conti wax museum in the Heart of Louisiana.
The motionless wax characters with their incredibly detailed features, real hair and period costumes, all have important stories to tell. And for more than a half-century, each has held the exact same pose, and stood in the exact same spot, making their moments in history come alive. Most of the 144 wax characters have been in the Musee' Conti museum since it opened in 1964.
“Is actually claimed to be the first family attraction in the city of New Orleans that was built in the French Quarter,” said Alex Key.
Key has managed the wax museum for the past five years. The life-size characters and historical sets are in remarkably good shape. But the museum is closing, to be replaced by new high-end condominiums.
There is a lot of nostalgia for a lot of people in this museum. Generations of people from the New Orleans area, including myself, came here as kids on school field trips. Karen Dickerson came here as a child, and didn't want her son Gabriel to miss out.
“The last time I was here was just kind of running through looking at everything. Now I'm taking the chance to read it,” Dickerson said.
Peg Culligan is a museum tour guide.
“I want them to get excited about history and to learn that history wasn't boring, and history is just humans,” Culligan said. “It's a human story.
And sitting in a dark corner of the museum, artist Nick Inman is preserving these characters in his own way. As he stares at a scene, his hand blindly sketches its way across the paper. He'll later turn the drawings into abstract paintings.
“What's been fun is listening to the passing conversations of people who grew up in the area and came here on field trips,” he said.
In this museum, you witness the arrival of the French, the Louisiana Purchase, pirate Jean Lafitte and an impressive recreation of the Battle of New Orleans, the days of gambling and Storyville, voodoo and slavery and duels, the Civil War and opera, and the odd-looking Cyclops that gives some youngsters a scare as they head for the exit.
“My favorite is probably Napoleon in his bathtub,” Key said.
Alex Key has gotten to know these characters.
“I would love to be able to sit and talk to a couple of them,” Key said. “I do try to talk to them every morning when we come in. They almost feel like family to me."
For 51 years, the figures have been part of the New Orleans family. And a visit now is like seeing a long-lost relative - and having a final chance to say farewell.
The Musee' Conti Wax Museum is open through Jan. 30. There is no word yet on what will happen to the museum's collection.