Fueling Our Future with Our Past

Imagine if New Orleans was known as the country’s premier museum destination. What would that mean for the city? The Historic New Orleans Collection’s Daniel Hammer thinks it would be a game-changer, which is why he’s set on making it happen.

When you think of The Historic New Orleans Collection (THNOC), you may think of a little museum in the French Quarter that houses some wonderful photographs and interesting historical pieces. In doing so, you’d be partly correct, but nowhere near accurate when it comes to the size and scope of the organization.

Founded in 1966 through the estates of General Lewis Kemper Williams and his wife, Leila Moore Williams — both preservationists and Louisiana history enthusiasts — The Historic New Orleans Collection is the worlds’ largest holder of materials relating to the history and culture of New Orleans

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It’s also a sizeable holder of real estate in New Orleans’s oldest and most well-known neighborhood. Starting with five buildings that extend like an “L” from 533 Royal Street to 722 Toulouse Street, THNOC’s French Quarter footprint has grown to include a dozen properties spanning more than 125,000 square feet. In addition, THNOC owns a 21,000-square-foot offsite storage facility on River Road.   

The organization’s latest addition to its property collection came this past December with the purchase of 416 Chartres Street, best known as the former home of K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen. The three-story, 175-year-old building spans just over 12,000 square feet and sits adjacent to THNOC’s Williams Research Center. The new acquisition is integral to the organization’s ambitious plans, which include a major museum renovation and expansion.

In July 2019, just a few months after the unveiling of a new $38 million exhibition center at 520 Royal Street,  the organization welcomed Daniel Hammer as its seventh president and CEO, and the first to have grown up in a family that traces its New Orleaans roots back generations. Hammer recently spoke with Biz to explain how THNOC is working diligently to not only raise awareness of the museum and its offerings, but toward a bigger vision to change how the world views the French Quarter, and thus New Orleans.

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You’re the first leader of THNOC to come from New Orleans. Can you share a bit about your background? I wasn’t born here, but I did grow up here. My mom’s family was from New Orleans going back to the 1840s. My mom’s grandmother left New Orleans in 1918, when she got married, and moved to Chicago. My mom grew up coming down to New Orleans all the time to visit family.

I was born in Boston, and then when I was 3, we moved to Chicago. And when I was 8, my dad got a job at Tulane medical school, which brought us to New Orleans.

I grew up in Lakeview. In fact, I grew up across the street from the house I live in now. My dad lives right across the street from us. I went to Ben Franklin High School and attended NOCCA for creative writing for a while.

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How did you find your way to THNOC? I went to college in Oregon, where I studied German literature. After graduation, I went and lived in Germany for a couple of years and worked at the Jewish Museum in Berlin, Germany, when it first opened. So that was my introduction to museums as a job, although at the time, I didn’t think that I was doing what would become my career. I worked as a gallery attendant, helping people find their way around and answering questions about the exhibits…

I came back to New Orleans in 2003 and worked in a variety of places, including at the Hotel Monteleone, where I did a wonderful managerial training program that ended with me becoming a manager on duty. And boy, talk about learning a lot about people. Hotels are just incredible places where everything that happens in society happens on a daily basis. I learned so much about customer service and business operations…Eventually, I found my way to The Historic New Orleans Collection because I spoke German and was able to engage with some German language materials in the collection’s holdings and create some inventories for these manuscript materials that were otherwise gathering dust on the shelves, inaccessible.

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So, you got the job because you spoke another language. How important is multilingualism at THNOC and with your approximately 150 employees? I think multilingualism is important for many reasons. We are investing in developing a multilingual workforce, focusing on French and Spanish, for a couple of reasons. One is the importance of tourism in our economy. We share with our friends at New Orleans & Company the vision for bringing benefit to New Orleans by increasing international tourism. International tourists are good for the city, and the more we can do to provide them with the experiences that they crave, the better. And being able to speak other languages is part of that.

And, likewise, we have here in our own population people who speak multiple languages — certainly, Spanish is a growing language here in New Orleans. The Hispanic population is the fastest-growing population in our region, particularly in Jefferson Parish, but also throughout the region. And so, the more that we can do to facilitate Spanish-speaking people’s access to our museum and their ability to find themselves in our collections, the better. The same with French-speaking people.

The other part of it is the fact that American history is written in languages other than English, and the more that we can do to contribute to the growth of a population of people who can access that material because they speak those languages, the more that we ensure that we will tell fuller stories about our history in the future.

As an employer, how are you boosting those language skills? We’re working with partners in the community like Alliance Francaise [de la Nouvelle Orleans] and CODOFIL. We offer classes for our staff as a benefit. Nothing is mandatory. And, for our frontline staff, we have at least some focus on vocabulary and phrases that can help with engaging French-speaking visitors about the things that they want to know about — where the restrooms are, the elevators, things like that.

Have you seen a growth in international visitors during your tenure at THNOC? No. We have a lot of work to do to really have success with this. There is an incredible interest in New Orleans — New Orleans has 20-million-plus visitors a year, so international visitation is always going to be possible in big numbers. But it can be challenging to get to New Orleans. From time to time, we have had direct flights, and I think that that does bring more international tourists. And of course, conventions are a big part of international tourism. This past year was a down year for convention business, and I think that had an impact.

However, I see great years in the future for conventions, and I fully expect that that’ll bring back more international tourists. But what can we do to bring back even more — at least for us in our lane, if you will — starts with making sure that we’re doing everything we can to facilitate a positive experience.

Let’s switch over to real estate. THNOC is a surprisingly large holder of French Quarter real estate, and those holdings keep growing. Why is that? THNOC started with our founders, who were an important part of that 20th-century movement to raise interest in the French Quarter and awareness of it as a place of beauty and romance and historic value, as opposed to what it had been known as through the end of the 19th century and into the early 20th century, which was kind of a downtrodden, derelict old part of the city that didn’t really have any value to the economic future of the city. The Williamses were part of this generation of preservationists who really sought to change the narrative about the French Quarter by promoting this idea that it was interesting and beautiful and romantic and historically valuable. And not just promoting it, but by renovating buildings, by living in them, by inviting their friends to come and visit them, and to see it for themselves.

When they passed away, they left their assets for the creation of a museum, the purpose of which would be to continue their collection of materials relating to the history and culture of New Orleans in Louisiana, to continue their efforts to conserve and preserve these historic buildings in the French Quarter, and to do it all for the purpose of benefiting the public. That is the vision we continue today.

Our mission is to continue collecting, but there’s only there’s only so much material that you can display at any time, so the acquisition of additional buildings is about enabling the continued development of how we execute our mission.

By the 1990s we had really outgrown our original buildings, including two that we added. And so, we moved into our buildings on Chartres Street, which we call our Williams Research Center. The Collection purchased the courthouse and police station at 410 Chartres Street, which was originally built by the city of New Orleans in 1915, and converted that into an access point for the public to come and do research in our collections, as well as storage for those growing collections. In 2007, we built an annex adjacent to that building, which is a four-story collection storage facility. That allowed us to be able to house most of our collections in the French Quarter. Before we built that building, we had a lot of things in offsite storage outside of the French Quarter, which made it harder to provide access. The majority of the materials are located in the French Quarter and are available to the public, either through our exhibitions or through the research access that we provide on Chartres Street at the research center.

Then in 2019, we opened our exhibition facility at 520 Royal Street, which is a group of buildings that were home to WDSU-TV until 1997, when they moved to Howard Avenue. That’s now a 38,000-square-foot museum exhibition facility. It’s also where our shop is located and home to our cafe, which we’ve recently brought in-house and are operating now, as well. The beautiful courtyard there is really kind of a center of our museum activity.

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Besides the Historic New Orleans Collection, the French Quarter’s approximately 1 square mile, is packed with other museum offerings, including:

New Orleans Pharmacy Museum; Ursuline Convent; Historic BK House & Gardens; Hermann-Grima House; Gallier House; Louisiana State Museum (Includes The Cabildo, The Presbytere, 1850 House Museum and Gardens, Jazz Museum, Madame John’s Legacy); Mardi Gras Museum of Costumes and Culture; Museum of Death; Pitot House Museum; Catholic Cultural Heritage Center; New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum; Irish Cultural Museum; Arnaud’s Germaine Wells Mardi Gras Museum; Haunted Museum

Tell me about the importance of the newest purchase, 416 Chartres. That’s very exciting. We’ll be moving our museum preparation department from our original buildings at 533 Royal Street into that building — that’s the folks who build the exhibits, as well as some of our content production, things like that. We are renovating our original buildings at 533 Royal Street, so those buildings are currently closed to the public. We’re in the process of doing an exhaustive study of the buildings, creating historic structures reports that we’ll be able to use as we go forward with renovating them. The goal is to create a museum campus that is all about engaging the public, with our collections in those historic spaces, as well as improved facilities for community use and things like receptions and other activities that people like to do in museums.

Having the ability to essentially use the entire group of seven buildings and four courtyards at 533 Royal Street for public engagement is extremely exciting. And the addition of the 416 Chartres building is going to allow us to do that.

What does the timeline look like for that? Over the course of 2023, we’ve been in trust, understanding what the buildings are historically and structurally.  That work continues into this year. We also have a design team that we’ve engaged — architects and historic specialists. By this time next year, I think we’ll have really figured out what we’re going to be able to do, and we should be in the construction document creation phase.

What are some of the highlights of THNOC’s collection — maybe some things people might be surprised that you have? There’s some very important documents relating to things like the establishment of Louisiana as a French colony, such as a letter written by Iberville to the King of France, describing the potential for this land known as Louisiana for colonization, kind of a business plan proposal to create a colony here. We have documents related to the Louisiana Purchase, original transfer documents relating to the sale of the transfer of Louisiana from Spain to France, and then subsequently, from France to the United States…

When the president of France, Emmanuel Macron, visited New Orleans on Dec. 2, 2022, you were able to meet with him. Were these some of the things that you showed him? Absolutely. We also showed him a wonderful pastel drawing by a Frenchman named Jules Lion, who was an important artist in 19th-century New Orleans, showing what appears to be a mixed-race father and son in a loving embrace from the 1840s. It’s considered by some art historians to be the only example in American art showing that type of relationship between a white person and a person of color from that time. There’s a lot of unknowns about it and who the subjects were, but it is related to our Frenchness here, if you will, and our Americanness and the interconnectivity of those two things, so we wanted to show it to the president.

How important are museums to the French Quarter, and to New Orleans as a whole?  The picture of the French Quarter, and what it is, is the picture of New Orleans for a lot of people. Some people think of it as being wonderful and beautiful and historic. Some people think of it as being dangerous, or inaccessible, or dirty. And in all cases, it kind of serves as a metaphor for what they think about New Orleans.

There’s an opportunity to uplift the French Quarter’s role in the city and bring about positive outcomes for the entire city through museums. We have some great museums in New Orleans, and some of them have very impressive visitor numbers. The National World War II Museum, of course, is well known to be one of the most visited museums in the United States. NOMA also has great visitor numbers, especially with the sculpture garden, and the Louisiana Children’s Museum at City Park does really well. And then we have so many great neighborhood museums all around New Orleans as well.

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The missing piece is the French Quarter. If you think about it, 20 million people a year visit the French Quarter. If 5% of those people are coming to the French Quarter to visit museums, that’s a million people a year — more than any museum in New Orleans has in terms of visitors. There aren’t many museums in the country that have that many visitors.

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Do you think it’s possible that New Orleans could be one of or even the country’s premier museum destination? I think it’s quite conceivable. The Collection is really focused on being a leader and making that possible, and it starts with having the facilities to accommodate more people. But it also includes being of relevance to more people, being inclusive of all people’s interests and ideas about what a museum should be for them.

Fortunately, we’re not doing this alone. We have an organization called the French Quarter Museum Association (FQMA.org) made up of all the nonprofit museums in the French Quarter. We’re really focused on creating a message for people to latch on to that the French Quarter is about museums. To be clear, it’s not about eliminating the other things the French Quarter is about. It’s about uplifting the museum profile in the French Quarter to create this important opportunity to bring our local population together with our tourist population, and to bring about some more beneficial outcomes.

Why is it so important to bring locals and tourists together? I think that one of the contributing factors to the decline of the perception of the French Quarter in terms of people feeling it is either inaccessible or not of interest to them is related to our failure to find ways to bring tourists and locals together in the same environment. If we could find ways to create opportunities for those two populations to see value in the same thing, that would bring a lot of benefit to New Orleans. But if we treat the tourism sector as separate from the needs and interests of the locals, then that’s a very challenging situation for us to find benefit.

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What other support are you receiving to accomplish these goals? New Orleans & Company has been very supportive. I think they like our vision for what we want to achieve in the Quarter. We received a grant from the Greater New Orleans Foundation last year to do some initial planning and studying, and we did look around the country for other examples of museum organizations that are doing something similar to what we want to do. There are some, but not as many as you might think. In Europe, there are cities that have robust museum collaborative organizations that work together with (municipal) agencies on issues like public transportation, for example, to draw people in to visit museums and create incentives for people to do that. That’s the type of thing that we hope to be able to achieve.

The first thing that we need to do, though, is understand what the message needs to be, so this year we’re going to be doing some deeper market analysis to understand how we put this message out there — that the French Quarter is about museums, in an effective way that will resonate with people…

One thing that I think New Orleans should be is complex and diverse… When you think about tourism, and what tourists want, the word authenticity comes up a lot. They want authentic experiences, so it’s very important that the French Quarter maintain its quality as a living part of the city that has a diverse array of things going on in it…

The goal that we have is to lead the way in creating in the French Quarter a focus on museum activity that can uplift the experience of the French Quarter for our visitors as well as for the people who live in New Orleans and call it home.

Did you know?

Museums Are Economic Engines

726,000 — people in America are employed in museums (2017)

$50 billion — amount museums contribute to the U.S. economy annually

Museums Are Good for the Community

$16,495 — the tax revenue created by each job in the museum sector, one-third of which goes to state and local governments

More people visit art museums, science centers, historic houses or sites, zoos, or aquariums than attend professional sporting events (2023)

$2 billion — the average amount spent each year by museums on education activities. The typical museum devotes three-quarters of its education budget to K-12 students.

In determining America’s Best Cities, Bloomberg placed the greatest weight on “leisure amenities [including density of museums], followed by educational metrics and economic metrics…then crime and air quality.”

(Source: American Alliance of Museums)


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