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Confederate Museum in New Orleans Continues To Suffer Low Visitation

Deborah Fitts

(May 2006) NEW ORLEANS, La. - Confederate Memorial Hall, which houses the second-largest collection of Confederate relics in the nation, sustained only minor damage from Hurricane Katrina last August. But visitors are staying away in droves.

"Tourism in the city is not on a rebound yet," said Pat Ricci, director of the 115-year-old museum. "Hopefully it will be."

The museum depends on admission fees and sales at its shop to support its annual $150,000 budget. In fact, those two sources have been sufficient to keep the facility in the black for years.

But in January and February the museum attracted only 337 visitors, compared with 1,689 during the same period last year. Total admission revenue for the two months was $1,513, compared with nearly $8,000 during the same period last year. During the final four months of 2005 when the museum was closed, the loss totaled an estimated 5,000 visitors and $35,000 in revenues from admissions and the gift shop.

Ricci said lately the museum has been attracting only three to 10 people a day. "Normally I'd be crying if we didn't have 100 people," she said.

Ordinarily, the period from March to May, immediately following Mardi Gras, is the museum's busy season. "Those are the months that sustain us for the rest of the year," Ricci explained.

The museum closed Aug. 27 as Hurricane Katrina bore down on New Orleans. The building had minor damage to the roof and water damage in the basement; but its location in the Central Business District, which did not flood, spared it a worse fate.

Still, devastation to other parts of the city and the region caused tourists to stay away, and Ricci said the trickle has yet to pick up. School visitation is also down because many schools have not reopened, and others have cut back on field trips as they try to make up for lost school days.

Ricci said a misperception prevails that New Orleans isn't ready for the tourists that are its lifeblood. "But everything people would normally come to see is open and functioning," she said. "New Orleans is ready for people to come back."

The museum reopened Jan. 7, but the museum board elected against resuming its Monday-through-Saturday schedule, instead reducing the hours to Thursday through Saturday. Meanwhile, the staff has been reduced to only three part-timers, including Ricci.

She said a bright spot occurred March 25-26, during a reenactment at Port Hudson. As a founding member of the 15-year-old Petite Magnolia Society, a women's reenactment unit affiliated with Boone's Battery, Ricci manned the society's booth at the reenactment, with proceeds from the weekend earmarked for Confederate Memorial Hall. On the first day hungry reenactors bought up all of the society's trademark loaf cakes, at a dollar a cake for about 250 cakes. The women also sold "gallons and gallons of lemonade," Ricci said.

The weekend garnered more than $500 for the museum. On March 25, the museum had a banner day also, with its biggest influx of visitors since last year. About 70 entered, mostly college students on spring break. Still, the number was about half of a normal spring Saturday, Ricci said.

The museum board was to meet in late April to consider the hall's fate. "No one can really predict the future," she said. "We're not on the verge of closing yet. Do we increase the hours? We'll probably shorten the staff even more." "We have a very dedicated board of directors," Ricci said. "We're continuing the mindset of the veterans."

Sam Hood, chairman of the Relief Fund Committee, said nearly 200 donations had come in from e-mail and direct-mail appeals sent to about 900 individuals and organizations. He said in a prepared statement, "The directors and staff of Confederate Memorial Hall Museum cannot adequately express the depth of our gratitude to those who have donated to the relief fund. You have literally kept the museum doors open during the most challenging period in the proud 115-year history of our sacred shrine."

Hood "implored" others to contribute, saying, "Financial support has never been so crucial, and cannot be more sincerely appreciated."

The museum is open Thursday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Those wishing to donate may send checks to the Memorial Hall Relief Fund, 929 Camp St., New Orleans, LA 70130.

Confederate Memorial Hall, which opened in 1891, is where some 60,000 mourners passed Jefferson Davis's casket as he lay in state in 1889. The museum collection includes the personal belonging of Davis, donated by his wife, and nearly 100,000 other items. Frank T. Howard built it in honor of his father, Charles T. Howard, a veteran.

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