NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA– So much was lost in the waters of Hurricane Katrina. In addition to the lives, property and personal photographs; local museums were threatened with losing the tangible parts of New Orleans’ history.
Southern University at New Orleans is home to one of the most renown centers for African and African American studies programs in the country. Part of the program’s genius is in using African artifacts as teaching tools, both at the university and outside of campus at local schools and within the community. SUNO has the largest collection of African artifacts in the state of Louisana today, but it wouldn’t have been so if it weren’t for the help of students.
To handle museum artifacts, your hands must be covered in cotton gloves that protect the delicate items from the oils on your fingers. The items weight must be supported by both hands and never should the items come in contact with water.
Linda Hill, the curator, and archivist fo the center of African and African American studies at SUNO. Hill says, “water deteriorates anything. But to actually sit in that water for months. We experienced at the highest point, ten feet of water.”
The story of Hurricane Katrina is eternal. In 2005, She made her mark upon the city with Hurricane Rita to soon follow.
Hill remembers the days leading up to the storm, saying, “That Friday, we were wrapping up everything because we had warnings.”
Southern evacuated over four thousand students and staff. Hundreds of artifacts were left behind on the first floor in a multi-purpose building. Feathers, pigments, textiles, clay, wood, and bone dating back over a hundred years, sat in salt water for five months.
Around 700 pieces were pulled from the water. 560 survived to today. A handful of students in museum studies were among the first to restore the items and were the manpower that saved the collection. More help arrived in the years to follow.
Erika Witt, is interim circulation librarian, adjunct professor and the curatorial liaison for the Center for African and African American Studies. She remembers enrolling at Southern in the years after the storm as a student, saying, “I was a graduate student when I came here in 2013. I was charged with the moving of the African art collection into a new space and then helping to reorganize and catalog.”
Many of the items in the collection are from the Congo. They are conduits of Louisiana’s story of the transatlantic slave trade. However, for these last 14 years since Hurricane Katrina, they also tell another story, of how college students saved the largest collection of African artifacts in the state.
When asked why the collections’ artifacts were worth saving, archivist Linda Hill says, “this is our culture. This defines a lot of who we are today. If we were to ever loose it, we would loose a legacy.”
The collection at SUNO has nearly doubled in size since Hurricane Katrina. It will eventually be housed in a state of the art museum gallery, now being built on campus.