Lynette Norris Wilkinson Lecture and Book Signing

The Living Museum was honored to host Lynette Norris Wilkinson, an award winning author who was born and raised in the Lower Ninth Ward, as part of the Living Museum Speaker Series events. Ms. Wilkinson gave a lecture to a packed room, and shared moving stories of strength and survival. Her talk was incredibly well recieved and was a beautiful addition to a weekend of Mardi Gras festivities.

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Ms. Wilkinson is the author of UntoldThe New Orleans 9th Ward You Never Knew, a book that features the stories of survival and community through the voices of sixteen Lower Ninth Ward residents. In Untold, Lynette Wilkinson delves deeply into the stories and voices of Lower 9th Ward Residents in their continued fight for survival and justice, during and since Hurricane Katrina.

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Through her eloquent depiction of the integrity, strength and resilience of Lower 9th Ward residents, Ms. Wilkinson inherently challenges the racialized mainstream media coverage that wrongly depicted residents in her community in 2005.  Untold provides thorough and detailed accounts of the true experiences of local residents, and remains the only book of its kind to do so.  Untold is an essential read to better understand the continued plight of the Lower 9th Ward community in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

The proceeds from Untold are donated to organizations helping residents in the Lower Ninth Ward to recover.  Check out her website and purchase a book!

Shoot & Capture; The Politics of Photography

Cameras can be instruments of self-empowerment. They are tools used to create, innovate, and preserve knowledge in unprecedented ways.

For the past two years, more than forty residents have graciously allowed us to videotape and/or audio record their life experiences in the name of preserving and sharing the Lower Ninth Ward’s history. Cameras have provided us with the invaluable opportunity to document generations of stories that are too easily forgotten. It’s safe to say that the Living Museum couldn’t exist without the ability to record oral histories of Lower Ninth Ward residents.

As we seek to minimize the negative footprint of this project, it’s important to explore the more harmful implications of the instruments we use to record each story.

While the camera provides us with opportunities for innovation, it also has a dark history that can’t be ignored. If you have ever had an unwanted camera in your face, you’ve likely felt its potential to be aggressive and intrusive. Throughout history the camera has often been used as a weapon – to exploit, colonize, invade, twist and objectify. Even the words associated with the camera are inherently violent: to “shoot” a scene and to “capture” an image. As Susan Sontag said, “to photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them that they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed.” Whether or not the camera is used with good intentions, the act of video taping inherently involves issues of ownership and representation.

As outsiders coming into this community bearing microphones and video cameras, it is imperative that we carry a deeper understanding of the tools we rely on. This means repeatedly acknowledging the magnitude of each interview, and our role in preventing such exchanges from being exploitative. It requires acknowledging our profound responsibility to protect every local resident’s story from being abused or misused and necessitates constantly negotiating ethical and respectful ways to showcase and honor each oral history.

The Living Museum exists to honor the rich history of the Lower Ninth Ward, as told strictly through the voices of local residents. The implications of using a camera to record history are undeniably complex, but the bottom line is not. We might hold the camera but we are not the storytellers, and this history will never belong to us.

“It’s Just a Show-and-Tell” – Disaster Tourism in the Lower Ninth Ward

It’s not uncommon to see a tour bus or limousine with tinted windows wind its way slowly through the Lower Ninth Ward.

Often times you’ll see cameras dangling from car windows while tourists snap photos of boarded up houses and slabs of concrete where houses used to be. There’s no question that much of the infrastructural state of this community (eight years after the devastating levee failure) is nothing short of abhorrent. But these tours are voyeuristic and highly offensive to local residents, and according to WDSU “On Your Side,” they’re often illegal.

Lower Ninth Ward resident, Chasity Stinnett, told WDSU that at times she feels “paranoid, on display and uneasy about letting her children play outside.” Stinnett says, “It’s just a show-and-tell, I mean, we’re not animals, you know.”

According to the news clip, James Gray of the New Orleans City Council has pledged to support the Lower Ninth Ward residents who want bus tours out of their community. He told WDSU that “people here have clearly indicated that they don’t want to be like animals in a zoo, and there’s an ordinance to protect them, and we’re going to… see to it that the police department enforces that ordinance.”

This has been said before. The Lower Ninth Ward has a long history of community activism, and this social justice issue proves no different. There’s nothing new about local residents speaking out against the damaging impact of disaster tourism.

In addition to organizing and reaching out to public officials, residents have fought back by erecting powerful signs, directed specifically at tourists (like the one pictured). And just last year, Travelers Today published an article featuring local resident Vanessa Gueringer, who told the AP, “We’re fed up and tired of them coming through the neighborhood like we’re some sideshow…After all the suffering we have been through, we deserve more respect than this.” As tour companies continue to exploit the Lower Ninth Ward for profit, concerns of local residents are being ignored, and city ordinances (claiming to protect local residents) are going entirely unenforced.

Once it’s open, the Living Museum is intended to serve and honor local residents first and foremost, but it also has the potential to direct (what seems like) inevitable disaster tourism away from the voyeuristic and damaging practice of bus tours, to a place where residents’ voices are actually heard. We hope for the Living Museum to operate as a place where visitors can learn about and honor the rich history of this community, straight from the mouths of local residents, without endorsing illegal “Show-and-Tell” bus tours or burdening residents to tell their stories again and again.  

As local activist Jenga Mwendo so eloquently put it in her article Jungleland, Really? A Lower Ninth Ward Response, “For every vegetation covered lot, there is a story, and much of the story is hard working people trying to make the historic Lower 9th Ward whole again.” It’s the Lower Ninth Ward Living Museum’s mission to make sure these powerful stories are honored and heard, while doing whatever we can to minimize the negative footprint of disaster tourism.

For more information on disaster tourism in the Lower Ninth Ward, check out the entire WDSU clip here, and make sure to read Jenga Mwendo’s powerful response article in full at the Center for Sustainable Engagement and Development’s blog.

Meet with the Times Picayune – CHECK!

For about a year, whenever Stephanie and I would spot the classic Times Picayune tower from the highway, we’d turn to each other and say, “we have to stop in there!” photo 1 (1)Yesterday, after an epic scavenger hunt through New Orleans, we finally made it happen.

The Times Picayune, being the official newspaper for Greater New Orleans, owns many of the photos and video clips we hope to use throughout the museum’s exhibits. In fact the Picayune newspaper operation has been around since 1837, documenting major events like the “Fall of New Orleans to Union Troops” in 1867 as well as the “First Modern Olympics” in 1896. photo 1On January 9th of 1967, the Times Picayune was the first to report that the New Olreans football team would be officially known as the Saints, named for the gospel-turned-jazz standard “When the Saints Go Marching In.” With such a rich and expansive archive, it’s no surprise that the Times Picayune is home to many photos that would help us share the history of the Lower Ninth Ward.

Our first stop was the old Times Picayune building, which was built in 1967 to house the publishing corporation. photo 2Although the building was huge and decorated with historic plaques, there didn’t seem to be much going on in terms of printing. The security guard at the front desk filled us in, and pointed us to an entirely different address. Recently, since physical newspapers are being replaced entirely by digital news blogs, the newspaper corporation has combined efforts with the media group and moved their main office to Canal street. So we hopped back in the car and headed into the city, still hoping to meet with someone from the Times Picayune photography division.

Turns out the Canal street office is hard to miss. The Times Picayune media headquarters resides on the top floor of Canal Place, one of the main attractions in “Downtown New Orleans.”photo 2 (1) Being on the 31st floor, the view of New Orleans was absolutely incredible. The office was bustling with people, and the lobby was filled with large flat screens that cycled through news coverage of New Orleans. photo 1 (3)After a couple of minutes, we had the pleasure of meeting Quo Vadis Sylve Hollins, executive assistant, who graciously walked us through the legal protocol for photo permissions. She accepted the application that Stephanie had typed up, and wished us luck with the opening of the museum. Now we just need to keep our fingers crossed that the application gets accepted and our photo permission requests are granted!

Once the elevator doors closed, Stephanie and I danced our way down the 31 floors and then shared an epic high five as we drove back to Deslonde Street. photo 2 (2)From now on, when we pass the classic Times Picayune tower from the highway, we can turn to each other and say “Been there, done that!”

Thanks to all of the Times Picayune staff members who were incredibly friendly and helpful. We look forward to collaborating with you in the future!

Off to a Hot Start

It’s official, the Living Museum crew has arrived at 1235 Deslonde Street for a summer of museum work and New Orleans heat. Image

The walls have been re-painted, photo permissions have been requested, the content is almost entirely finalized, the new website is up and running and the oral histories are being transcribed and coded for video production.

In the next couple of months we will be ordering, mounting, and perfecting each exhibit. Our goal is to open the Museum on August 24th!

Some highlights from this week:

  • Seeing an alligator by the levee

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  • Having Jeffrey style our hair


  • Getting Museum work done at Flora Cafe


Stay tuned for more Living Museum updates!

Mythbusters Edition: The Lower Ninth Ward Isn’t the Lowest

How many times have we heard the argument that the Lower Ninth Ward is just “too far below sea-level” to rebuild?

Aerial view of the Industrial Canal Levee and Lower Ninth Ward, April 2006. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith. Courtesy Carol M. Highsmith.

We’ve seen this myth spread from news media sources to the mouths of congressmen, turning up in countless conversations about the lack of progress in the Lower Ninth Ward (See The Seattle Times and House Speaker Dennis Hastert’s infamous comment).  Now it’s been seven years since the storm and we still see articles circulating that refer to the Lower Ninth Ward as one of the “lowest-lying” and “most flood-prone” area in the city. From day one, Lower Ninth Ward residents and activists have argued such claims are exaggerated and bogus, pointing to neighborhoods in Lakeview and New Orleans East (equally as vulnerable and “flood-prone”) that were given more resources and opportunities to rebuild (Landphair, 2007).

Scientists who have studied the topography of New Orleans agree that the Army Corps’ elevation warning for the Lower Ninth Ward was far from certain (Schwartz, 2006). Much of the Lower Ninth Ward is ”two to three feet higher” than areas of the Lakeview or New Orleans East neighborhoods, as well as the western side of Jefferson Parish, but after the storm, there wasn’t a discussion about people having to move from there. Advocates of the Lower Ninth argue that the “question of high ground versus low ground is also beside the point…’If you build a good flood-control system, the entire city is safe…If we don’t get a good flood-control system, the entire city is dangerous.”

After doing some research, I found that many articles refer to the Lower Ninth Ward being above sea level in some areas and relatively higher than New Orleans East or Lakeview, but I wasn’t able to locate a source with actual data to back up the argument. This is most likely due to the unofficial neighborhood lines, as well as rapidly changing elevation rates throughout New Orleans.

In order to find more accurate snapshot of New Orleans’ elevation levels, I decided to take a look at the USGS elevation index for the Lower Ninth Ward and New Orleans East. Even within each sub-neighborhood, elevation levels vary quite a bit, but the overall data supports arguments that the Lower Ninth Ward is indeed much higher than the vast majority of Lakeview and New Orleans East.

According to the USGS elevation dataset, most landmarks in the Lower Ninth Ward range from 3 feet below to 3 feet above sea level (Lee Playground 0 Feet; Bonart Playground 3 Feet; Beulah Land Baptist Church -3 Feet; Amozion Baptist Church 3 Feet). Meanwhile, the New Orleans East neighborhood has areas in Pines Village and Read Blvd East as low as 10 feet below sea level, with its highest areas in West Lake Forest coming in right at sea level (Pines Village -10 Feet; Pradat Playground -7 Feet; Werner Playground -7 Feet; Wimbledon Playground -7 Feet; Baptist Church 0 Feet; Prince of Peace Lutheran Church -3 Feet; Louisiana Nature Center -10 Feet; Little Woods -3 Feet).

The idea that the Lower Ninth Ward neighborhood is unworthy of being rebuilt because of its elevation has proven to be yet another myth in the devastating story of Katrina.

Living Museum Appreciation BBQ!

The Lower Ninth Ward Living Museum hosted an Appreciation BBQ this past weekend to thank residents for their generous contributions of time and knowledge. The outreach team has spent the summer gathering oral histories from residents that will be featured in audio and video throughout the finished museum. Residents have also contributed to the Remembrance Room that will honor memories of Lower Ninth friends and family members who have passed.

Over 60 people attended the Appreciation BBQ. The event got off to a great start with delicious food, great music, and neighborhood kids playing in the yard.

Throughout the evening, residents watched a short film featuring interviews with people from the neighborhood. Residents also gave feedback on rough draft exhibits in the red, yellow, blue, green, and purple rooms. These exhibits start with the early history of the area as a runaway slave colony and end with present events in the Lower Ninth Ward.

Toward the end of the evening, a group of residents gathered in the green room and shared stories of Hurricane Katrina and Betsy. Surrounded by mock exhibits, they debated the causes of the catastrophic levee breach, giving meaning to the “living” part of the museum as a community space for history as told by the people.

Special thanks to Cafe Dauphine, Cast Iron Rose Creole, Cajun Joe’s, Mardi Gras Zone, Jack Dempsey’s, The Joint, Elizabeth’s Restaurant, Maurepas Foods, Jimmy’s Grocery, Montrel’s Bistro, and “Mack” McClendon from the Lower 9th Ward Village for their generous contributions to this event. Also, many thanks to Stephanie Dragoon (the “Dragon”) for making this event happen.