Had I never seen the Musée Conti it might have been to me simply one more casualty in a string of wax museums whose announcement of closure seemed as expected as the next. But in Michelle E. Bloom’s Waxworks: A Cultural Obsession (2003) a former manager of Movieland Wax Museum put Musée Conti in the august company of Madame Tussauds London, Musée Grevin in Paris, Potter’s in St. Augustine, Florida, and the then-extant Movieland as exceptional collections among a field otherwise rife with has-beens and never-weres.
If there were only four wax museums left that were of note in this authority's reckoning—in my own more liberal appreciation of the art medium the number is far larger—I would never forgive myself if I missed seeing the one among them facing imminent closure…
I stand facing Musée Conti on a chilly Monday morning, January 15. I don’t know what kind of attendance to expect as the attraction enters its penultimate week of existence, but I'm surprised to find precisely no one waiting to get in. Venerable the old girl might be, but veneration is presently in short supply. An employee smoking in front of the building briskly ducks back inside and unlocks the front door when he sees me standing idly across the street (trying to look disinterested) at 10 a.m. sharp. I probably would have enjoyed living in that moment of anticipation a little longer—delayed gratification is a good friend of mine—but having cut his smoke short there's nothing to be done but own my eagerness. Inside I cross a lobby whose ambition seems to have outstripped its purpose, as if it once hosted a queue, or maybe a troop of teaser foyer figures meant to beckon visitors inside. Now it contains only Louis Armstrong, holding his prop trumpet and weary from grinning, to the far right of an empty expanse that begs for a refrain of “When the Saints Go Marching In” in a proper jazz funeral style. That's the most unsettling factor in the museum this morning—the silence underlining the sense that this is the death knell of an attraction that has hosted generations of school groups who, despite their likely cacophonous nature, couldn’t help absorbing at least some of the immersive history on offer.
“Just one?" the man only half asks. "Eight bucks."
He doesn’t yet have any change for my Hamilton, so he pushes a five back at me and says I get a discount this morning. “Oh, here, I have a couple of ones,” I say, pushing two bills across the counter. “Let me give you those at least.”
“Nah,” he says, sliding them back. “Don’t worry about it.”
It feels like we're squared off in a very benevolent game of poker. I really want to pay full freight. I know two dollars isn’t going to make a lick of difference in the museum's end stage, but this place is the whole impetus of my cross-country journey. With what I'm spending on accommodations, travel, and food just to be here, it seems admission to the storied attraction should cost me at least as much as a foot-high hurricane slushy in the Quarter. Nevertheless, I'm compelled to accept the largesse.
“Entrance to the left," he says.
Vintage museum ephemera is displayed just outside the portal to the exhibits and I start to study it, but I'm self-conscious of seeming like a scary super-fan—especially since I'm all too aware that I am one. When the employee so much as casually glances in my direction I hustle from the otherwise empty lobby and step through the threshold into the New World.
The first tableau as we cross the divide depicts the expedition of Pierre Le Moyne, Sieur d’Iberville, the father of the Canadian Royal Navy, meeting up with a fated blue-coated Choctaw, thus ending the struggle to find the Mississippi River—again, for it had been found and tragically lost 17 years earlier by a gaggle of now overwhelmingly dead French colonists. I am immediately in love—most inappropriately with the tableau’s teenage Bienville, little bro to Iberville, who would, 19 years after this event, found the city of New Orleans. Can any fan of waxworks look on the lad and not swoon?
I immediately see in him the pedigree of the collection, executed by the French firm Pierre Imans Ltd., and it sets the tone for an exhibit worthy of the measures I've taken to get here. Absent Bienville's beaver hat and woolen coat, can you not picture him in the window of a midcentury Parisian boutique? Pierre Imans was a high-caliber producer of mannequins known for their individuality, artistry, and realism. The firm’s artists worked with wax well into the midcentury to achieve these ends, long after other manufacturers had abandoned the expressive medium in favor of more durable, less expensive plastics.
Moving along to our next scene, in which French Minister of Finance John Law—inventor of paper money and, soon after, inflation—shows Philip II, Duke of Orleans, a map of the city named in his honor. The third gentleman is Louis Armand de Bourbon, Prince of Conti. Now is an excellent time to discuss hair, and whether it was the most talented or least talented artisan at Pierre Imans who was assigned the tedium of threading individual hairs to create the luxurious locks of the Bourbon-Orleans aristocracy. Add the fact that the hair of a well-cared-for waxwork is washed twice a year and these swells might be the biggest divas in all the Musée. It's only fitting that their Rococo interior and their costumes by Madelle of Paris are also among the museum's most sumptuous.
The Duke admittedly appears bored, but it’s possible given the heavy-handed pour of his red wine that he’s already celebrated in a manner appropriate to a town that will one day feature daiquiri drive-throughs. Indeed, the eyelashes on his left eye are coming loose, a sure sign of inebriation.
“Send me wives for my Canadians!” pleads Bienville, aforementioned perfect Parisian mannequin boy, now governor of an extremely gender-unbalanced Louisiana. The colonists need womenfolk, and the French Crown in its very French way responds by sending successive shipments of French teenagers. In exchange for their courage in volunteering to become the wives and mothers of the New World, the girls receive little “casket” hope chests with “two dresses, two petticoats, six headdresses, and sundries.” Mother St. André Malotte of the Ursuline Convent here welcomes a shipmaster and his charge of feminine cargo, who will be accommodated at the Ursuline Convent until marriages can be arranged. Because it is another time and place I’ll resist untoward words about female commodification. I’ll say only that the arrangement (and maddening pinkish lighting) of this scene makes it seem less like the ladies are arriving than trying to sneak away at dusk, except maybe the one lurking in the shadow of the shipmaster; she probably told on the other two.
Things get all kinds of complicated when the Treaty of Paris cedes lands east of the Mississippi to England, and the Bourbon “family compact” cedes lands west of the Mississippi to Spain, leaving a bunch of French creoles in the lurch. The creoles revolt against a small contingent of Spanish soldiers who arrive to install their new governor. The creoles win—hooray! Then many more Spanish soldiers come back and the creoles lose. Here's a Spanish Army firing squad executing five creole rebel leaders.
This episode was carried out on the Faubourg Marigny thoroughfare now known as Frenchmen Street, so named to honor the five executed Creoles. The strip is now cheek to jowl with jazz clubs where those so inclined can fortify the blood of the patriots by spilling a bit of a $12 sazerac on the sacred ground. I'd like to apologize for the appearance of extreme processing in the image below. I assure you that I applied only a bit of color correction, but the executed Creoles are placed at a ludicrous distance from visitors and I can only capture them by ducking and shooting with my long lens through the soldiers’ armpits, effectively becoming another member of the firing squad. Or an 18th-century paparazzi. In this case the less-than-sharp nature of the photo gives the dead Creoles' faces a painterly quality that I find eerily beautiful. To add to the tragedy, according to my guidebook there are 10 figures in this scene and no matter how much I contort my arms and aim my camera awkwardly whilst trying to avoid tripping the alarms at the scene's boundaries, I only ever see nine; one dead creole is either MIA or ascended. There are only about 150 original figures in the Musée, and the number of those who are either partially or totally obscured puzzles me.
The murderous Spaniards are magnificent, with solemn expressions and shadowy stubble achieved—as on all male figures in the Musée—by painstakingly threading beards hair by hair only to shave it all off. Generalized magnificence aside, look closely at the far side of this executioner's face and you'll notice a color change, from fleshy pink to the ghastly yellow hue that emerges when wax faces haven't had their makeup touched up in a while. Can it be that the Musée observed its approaching expiration date and maintained only what was obvious to visitors (and even then let the occasional eyelash droop)?
Scene 5, "American Boatmen vs. Spain at New Orleans, 1775" will not be seen here. My beginner's photography skills can't overcome the abominable lighting that is by turns blinding and obscuring. This won't be the only scene omitted, hence the nonsequential numbering.
A half-hour into my visit, I’m still the only person here. I mentioned the silence before. It’s even more pronounced in the museum's partially finished warehouse construction. There’s no music, only ambient room noise. But as I approach the next tableau, I hear the sound of trickling water. Former family owner Katherine Weil Spurlock reports that it’s a simple matter of quirky pipework—it's only by happy accident that its location enhances a scene in which an angry Napoléon quarrels with his brothers from his antique bathtub.
Then-First Consul of the French Republic, the young Napoléon’s petulance is palpable almost to the point of animating his waxy proxy. And while he will soon, according to brother Lucien’s diary, practically fall right out of his tub in his fit of pique, our modesty in the moment is shielded by a strategically placed sponge. He's so testy here because his brothers are daring to challenge his undemocratic declaration that France will sell Louisiana to the Americans. His motivations were anti-colonialist, which puts him ahead of his time, but his proposed selling price of two cents per acre does seem shortsighted…unless he was projecting the future benefit of American fetishism of French cuisine and fashion sense. If a big chunk of France continued to bisect the states united, would we really regard coq au vin as anything more than a chicken past its prime marinated too long in cheap red wine? Napoléon takes a bow in practically every wax museum ever, except those dedicated to a specific facet of history that can’t justify his inclusion—e.g., he makes himself refreshingly scarce at Bible Walk and Salem Witch Museum. And while I’m generally bored with his rote appearances in other museums, always in emperor dress and always with that damn hand shoved under his vest, I appreciate him here, naked and impetuous and just on the verge of achieving single-name status. It’s like capturing Beyoncé Knowles in the throes of firing the rest of Destiny’s Children to effect her fated, fabled world domination. She, too, sports an "e" with an acute accent. Coincidence?
Here, brother Lucien and Napoléon's young valet look on. Lucien and Joseph's clothes were reportedly among the most expensive costumes created for the museum. My photography didn't capture the true richness of their texture, color, and embroidery work.
Speaking of selling, and buying, Louisiana…here the French Minister of the Treasury, Francois Barbé-Marbois (another maddeningly obscured figure), accepts the U.S.’s offer of $15 million for his country’s 900,000-square-mile time-share in North America. What diplomats James Monroe (center) and Robert Livingston (left) don’t know is that they might have been able to haggle Barbé-Marbois down to Napoléon’s suggested sticker price of $10 million.
Monroe and Livingston look awfully smug for a couple of fellows who are, without telling President Thomas Jefferson, sealing a deal to pay more than their country’s annual income for an unexplored wilderness with uncertain boundaries. Jefferson had dispatched them only to secure the Port of New Orleans, leading to America's most significant land acquisition that didn’t more or less result from saying, “Because I said it’s mine, that’s why.” Instead, we bought the Louisiana Territory from other people who said that first.
With that, we've reached the end of colonial wrangling. See part 2 for the dawning of U.S. wrangling.
All text and image content © 2016 Sixpenny Waxworks