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Memorial Hall Is Still Struggling After Katrina

Kathryn Jorgensen

(April 2007) NEW ORLEANS, La. - How do you operate a museum when many of your employees, volunteers, board members and supporters are miles away and out of touch, some still in temporary housing?

How do you keep a museum open when visitation is down 80 percent?

With difficulty, say officials of Memorial Hall-Confederate Civil War Museum in New Orleans, the city still recovering from Hurricane Katrina.

"It could be a lot worse," says Sam Hood, president of Memorial Hall Foundation, the museum's fundraising arm. But he admits that the drop in visitors from some 20,000 a year before Katrina to just 3,800 last year is devastating for an institution that depends on admissions revenue.

Director/curator Pat Ricci says that the museum lost a large portion of its support and volunteer system. Many of these people lived in the Lake District, where the canal breached, and lost homes. Because of the disruptions the successful annual gala fundraiser hasn't been held for two years.

The museum is in the Warehouse District, now being marketed as the Museum District, and was unscathed by Katrina; however, this year's visitor figures remain poor at Memorial Hall and at other institutions. To broaden interest "Civil War" was added to the museum name.

There is some good news. Hood says that unrestricted contributions and support for Memorial Hall Foundation have increased.

"I think people that care about the museum who are not able to visit it on a regular basis have been contributing, so that has picked up a portion of our shortfall," he says.

"I hate to sound crass, but we're like anywhere and everywhere - in order for us to stay open we've got to pay our taxes, insurance and everything else."

Direct revenues don't cover operating expenses and the museum urgently needs to replace the half of the slate roof not yet repaired. "Every time it rains it leaks and we're running around putting buckets out," Hood says. "If we had the genie in a bottle that's our one wish."

Ricci says, "The city is ready for people to come back. We're ready. The museum is beautiful."

It reopened a year ago January with upgraded exhibits and new displays. These include a Louisiana Native Guard exhibit about the war's first black officers, an updated display on Union Gen. Benjamin "Beast" Butler, New Orleans Civil War photos and a Confederate medical display.

Some people blame national media for affecting tourism by concentrating on the damaged residential areas and crime. A recent Times-Picayune story described "two different worlds compressed into one city: a perimeter of devastation encircling neighborhoods like the French Quarter and the Warehouse District that survived Hurricane Katrina largely unscathed."

Convention visitors who were interviewed for the story were pleased with the hotels, restaurants, shops, taxi service and the French Quarter. But French Quarter visitors, like those who come for Mardi Gras, aren't leaving the area to visit museums.

Hood emphasizes that the Warehouse District is safe, yet a recent New York Times story described the flight of "hundreds of the city's best and brightest" who cite "high crime, high rents, soaring insurance premiums and what many call a lack of leadership, competence, money and progress."

Hood knows visitors will be captivated by Memorial Hall. That's what happened to him. A collateral descendant of John Bell Hood, he was on a trip from his home in West Virginia to visit Hood's postwar home and tomb in Metairie and stopped by the museum four or five years ago.

He was hooked. "This place looks and smells, sounds and feels exactly as it did when Jefferson Davis' body was lying in state here," he says.

The museum is open from 10-4 Wednesday through Saturday at 929 Camp St. Pat Ricci and a fulltime employee manage the building with the help of volunteers. Memorial Hall Foundation memberships (starting at $10 for students), memorial gifts and donations are invited.

For more information contact (504) 523-4522, memhall@aol.com or visit www.confederatemuseum.com.

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234 Monarch Hill Rd.
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