Military museum rises from the muck of Katrina
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — With the light touch of someone accustomed to handling fragile historic artifacts, Beverly Boyko gingerly pointed to the white crust fused to the scarlet military flag from World War II. The unit flag belonged to a battalion in the National Guard's historic Washington Artillery, a Jackson Barracks unit that fought through North Africa, Italy and to Germany after the Army federalized its Louisiana soldiers and sent them to the European front.
Perhaps the only such flag still in existence, the Washington Artillery's colors, designating it as the 935th Field Artillery, had been stored between layers of white tissue paper at Jackson Barracks' decades-old museum. It was a method of preservation with flaws that became apparent after Hurricane Katrina's tidal surge pushed through levees and flooded the National Guard post at New Orleans' border with St. Bernard Parish.
"When Katrina came, it sat in muddy, yucky water for weeks after weeks," said Boyko, collections manager at the Jackson Barracks Military Museum. The tissue disintegrated, leaving patches of white paper caked on the delicate textile weave.
The flag — like much of the state militia's collection of history — remains in limbo more than eight years after Katrina, and after the National Guard rebuilt Jackson Barracks. The National Guard lost about 30 percent of its 9,000-piece collection when the military museum flooded. Of the thousands of artifacts and documents that were salvaged, many — like the scarlet flag — have been merely stabilized to prevent further decay until the National Guard finds money to pay for professional restoration.
While the struggle to save pieces of Army and Air National Guard and even Louisiana history goes on, there is a bright spot. The National Guard quietly has reopened what's now called the Ansel M. Stroud Jr. Military History and Weapons Museum.
Named for the retired adjutant general, the red brick building was erected in the $300 million post-Katrina construction boom. It sits next to the 1837 powder magazine, where the former museum complex stood before the 2005 storm.
The museum's "soft opening" came in late September, when the nonprofit fundraising arm, Friends of the Louisiana National Guard Museums, kicked off a capital campaign to find sponsors who'll donate money to restore artifacts and to expand and modernize the museum. The nonprofit raises money for the Jackson Barracks museum and the Louisiana Maneuvers and Military Museum at Camp Beauregard in Pineville.
"It's not by any means a true exhibit we want to showcase," Lt. Col. Michael Kazmierzak, the state public affairs officer whose command includes the museums, said of the limited display now at Jackson Barracks.
The state maintains the museum and employs its staff of four — the director, curator, artifacts and collections manager, state military historian — Kazmierzak said. "We just don't have a state budget to support the actual artifacts, especially the totality of the destruction and the restoration process, in moving from a 1990s museum to a 21st century museum," he said.
The National Guard does not yet have plans for a grand opening at museum, said its director, Capt. Heather Englehart. She calls the soft opening "a teaser," or a preview of sorts of what people may expect to see in its 13,000 square feet of display space. "We've got a lot more to do, yet where we've come from is monumental," Englehart said.
Apart from the artifacts already on display, banners hang from the ceiling, providing a glimpse of future plans. "It's really kind of a sampling of what we want to do," said Rhett Breerwood, the National Guard's state military historian.
When the work is complete, patrons will be able to follow a chronological history of Louisiana's Army and Air National Guard from its roots as a colonial militia to wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The museum will include a display highlighting the National Guard's homeland mission of responding to state emergencies.
Katrina will factor heavily in the museum. Looming large just inside the entrance is a Bell UH-1 Huey helicopter, once assigned to Louisiana's 812th Medical Company. It was one of the more than 150 military helicopters that rushed to the area after Katrina to hoist people from rooftops.
During one rescue operation, one of the Huey's skids became lodged in a roof, trapping it and leading its crew to abandon it. A news photo of that Huey circulated nationally, and it, too, will be part of the display, Englehart said. The Huey eventually will hang from the ceiling, above a mock-up of a New Orleans rooftop, she said.
The museum's second floor will be used to highlight National Guard artifacts and displays showcasing some of the more historical figures in the state. Among them is the late Maj. Gen. Raymond Hufft, a New Orleans native who fought in Europe during World War II and is the most decorated soldier from Louisiana.
On the grounds outside the museum are restored armored fighting vehicles and artillery pieces, of the sort Louisiana National Guard units once had in their inventories and some of which are on loan from the Army.
Also on the grounds is the collection of Air National Guard airplanes, which sat in the Katrina muck. Only two of them have been restored and mounted on stands for display: an F-15 Eagle and an F-100 Super Sabre. Six others await restoration by the volunteer 122nd Bomb Squadron Restoration Unit that still meets weekly at Jackson Barracks, Englehart said.
While Katrina devastated Jackson Barracks, the storm provided the National Guard with the chance to modernize the buildings at the 117-acre installation. Those lessons learned were carried over to the museum, giving its staff the opportunity to create new policies and procedures for its research library, and to rethink how it keeps track of its collection.
"We've improved it because of Katrina, emphasizing the importance of inventories and backup systems," Boyko said.
The museum is set in a multiuse complex that includes a theater and courtyard. It is built with high ceilings, elevating many of the museum's sensitive artifacts and its library on the second floor high above any potential flood level, said curator Stan Amerski. Keeping the height of Katrina's flooding in mind, the building was designed so that there would be about eight feet of airspace between the water's surface and the first floor ceiling, allowing the building to breath still in the event of another catastrophe, he said.
Contingency plans are in place to move many displays from the lower level, said Amerski. Most of the money the museum had before Katrina for development has been redirected to restoration efforts, he said.
"The whole collection needs to be worked on," Amerksi said. "But there's no way we can even raise the funds to get things to close as it was before Hurricane Katrina."
For instance, Englehart said, more than 400 weapons are included in the museum's collection. "They have been stabilized, but zero have been restored," she said.
The collection includes a portrait of Louisiana's only governor of African-American descent, Pinckney Pinchback, who held the post for barely a month during Reconstruction. The oil painting was among the artifacts that stewed in Katrina water. Its surface is covered in a polyester film designed to stabilize the piece and prevent further deterioration, Boyko said.
It's stored in a bank of drawers, near rows of shelving on which numerous personal artifacts are kept. Those include German military helmets and a World War I pilot's cap, the leather shrunk from sitting in the Katrina muck, Boyko said. "It took a beating, but it hung in there," she said.
The museum includes a research library, also on the upper floor, with about 160 volumes containing a comprehensive list of all Louisianans who served during the Civil War. A Louisiana delegation traveled to the National Archives in 1912, and using a Photostat machine, copied every page, Boyko said. It's the only such list known to exist outside the National Archives.
Among prized possessions that aren't expected to be on display is a March 15, 1865, letter signed by Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee to Lt. Gen. Richard Taylor, a Louisianan. In it, Lee instructed Taylor to save his troops and pull out of Mobile, Ala., should Union forces attack with sufficient force. Taylor received the letter five days after the Civil War ended. Englehart estimates the letter's value at $26,000.
The letter is stored in a documents room not accessible to the public, along with numerous original records. Among them are items that bear the signature of Gen. P.G.T Beauregard, a St. Bernard Parish native who rose to prominence in the Confederate Army and later was appointed adjutant general of the Louisiana National Guard.
Boyko, hired by the state three years ago, has the huge task of cataloguing every piece in the National Guard inventory at the museum. She's creating a searchable computer database through which, for instance, researchers will be able to identify items in the holdings assigned to a specific unit during a specific period.
The Guard had a catalogue of its holdings at Jackson Barracks, but she said that, too, was lost during Katrina. So she and Breerwood, the state military historian, are sorting through the holdings, trying to determine what's there so they can create a record that includes photographs of every piece.
"It's the archaeology of a museum," Boyko said of her task. "In another year, I'll have a really good grasp on it."