Vintage photography and parade float sculptures greet visitors upon entering. Photo by Dan Lewis

On Exhibit: ‘Masquerade’ at the Louisiana State Archives

“People on the outside have certain perceptions of New Orleans Mardi Gras, but as someone who grew up in New Orleans, this feels like an incredible flashback.”

These words come from John Tobler, deputy secretary of communications, outreach and promotions for the Louisiana Department of State, as he peers down into a display case of century-old ducal medals worn only by Krewe of Rex royalty. Behind Tobler, and in the lobby, and all around the long front room of the Louisiana State Archives building, cabinets of curiosity line the walls of the exhibition “Masquerade: The Tradition of New Orleans Mardi Gras,” with displays of what curator Angela Cinquemano refers to as the “Mardi Gras multiverse.”

“What you think you know about Mardi Gras custom and tradition may be true,” Cinquemano says, “but there are also infinite doors that you may never have opened.”

During this exhibition, visitors can journey through history, beginning with the Crescent City’s first krewe, Comus, founded in 1856, before traveling deeper into even older Carnival traditions like Tremé’s Northside Skull and Bone Gang, which dates to 1819. Exhibits on contemporary krewes like the Krewe of Red Beans and sci-fi-specific Chewbacchus carry them all into the present day.

Many of the objects come from the collection of Arthur Hardy, the historian and author whose educational videos can be accessed via QR codes beside each glass display case. Also highlighted here are decades-old photos restored from the Archives’ own collections, as well as treasures—including feathery costume sketches by famed designer San nicholas—from the Louisiana State Museum.

In conjunction with the exhibition, the Friends of the Louisiana State Archives will host its inaugural Spring Gala, a Carnival-style celebration, on March 6. For Archives executive director and state archivist Catherine Newsome, the gala serves as a welcome return to the pleasures of Mardi Gras past. “After two years of postponements,” she says, “it’s really cool that we can bring Mardi Gras back through this exhibit.”