William McKinley Making Speech from Balcony in New Orleans

People and Power: Building History at the Cabildo

The Cabildo
Tue, August 31, 2021

People have been making history at the Cabildo for more than two hundred years. Politicians, government officials, and members of the public who gathered at the Cabildo shaped law, politics, society, and culture in New Orleans and Louisiana. The building has witnessed important events—tragic and celebratory—as well as several famous visitors. The special exhibition People and Power: Building History at the Cabildo explores the Cabildo’s remarkable history as a public building and the importance of preserving and sharing that history today.

The exhibition traces the site’s history, beginning with its uses by Indigenous people. It then shows how the Cabildo evolved from a colonial city government complex to its current role as part of the Louisiana State Museum. A section on law enforcement shows how policing and imprisonment at the Cabildo reflected and reinforced racial and social hierarchies in New Orleans. It includes stories of public punishment, jailbreaks, and the notorious privateer Pierre Laffite. Displays on making and interpreting laws at the Cabildo delve into policies of the Spanish cabildo (town council), New Orleans City Council, and Louisiana Supreme Court. This part of the exhibition explains how residents supported or challenged those who held power, by voting, protesting, or bringing cases to court.

A section on political conflicts explains how armed militias targeted the Cabildo during Reconstruction in attempts to seize power. The exhibition also shares the history of political ceremonies at the Cabildo, such as the Louisiana Purchase transfer ceremonies. It highlights celebrations and famous visitors to the building, including General Lafayette, Presidents McKinley and Eisenhower, and the cast of Saturday Night Live.

While the Cabildo is no longer a site of legislative or judicial power, it is now part of the Louisiana State Museum. Museum staff has the responsibility to collect and interpret objects relevant to Louisiana’s history and culture. The exhibition reveals the struggle to preserve the Cabildo, explores how the museum has evolved, and considers how museum practices can affect public perceptions of Louisiana’s past and present.

Opening in late summer 2021, People and Power: Building History at the Cabildo is located in three galleries on the second floor of the Cabildo and includes additional signage throughout the building to highlight notable rooms and architectural elements. The exhibition includes a vast array of objects from the museum’s permanent collection. It also features historic artifacts such as eighteenth-century stockades and a tombstone of Homer Plessy. Original documents, including those related to the construction of an eighteenth-century prison on the site, reveal the building’s colonial history. Prints and photographs show how the Cabildo has served as the grand backdrop for political events, celebrations, and ceremonies over two centuries. Highlights from the museum’s collection demonstrate the importance of preserving and sharing Louisiana’s history, and illustrate how these practices changed over time. Educational programming includes K-12 lesson plans and gallery guides, panel discussions, lectures, and virtual tours.

People and Power: Building History at the Cabildo shares stories of the diverse people who participated in the Cabildo’s history of power and governance and reveal the continued legacy of events that happened there.

People&Power Title Graphic