When you first see a Gothic castle overlooking the Mississippi River in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, you may not believe your eyes. The eccentric but impressive Old Capitol Museum not only has an eye-catching exterior, but the site also boasts gorgeous interior architecture and political history exhibits that tell stories as fascinating as the building.
Through its many historic museums, Baton Rouge proves it is a city that knows how to deliver a compelling tale. Instead of relaying facts, these capital city museums interact with and engage viewers.
From a vibrant Mardi Gras float to a World War II destroyer ship, Baton Rouge’s museums captivate visitors with local and national history.
Old Capitol Museum
Called the Castle on the River for obvious reasons, the Old Capitol Museum seemed just as unusual when it was built in 1852. Instead of mimicking the national Capitol in Washington like so many other statehouses, the architect chose turrets and battlements.
Today, it is regarded as one of the nation’s most famous works of Gothic Revival architecture. And the surprises don’t stop there.
“You think the outside is really pretty and then when you walk inside and look up, you see the spiral staircase and beautiful stained glass ceiling,” said Cathy Juarez, destination content manager for Visit Baton Rouge. “It really is a unique place. It is one of the first places we send groups.”
Since a new state capitol took over government operations in 1932, the original building now serves as a museum of political history. The museum’s “The Ghost of the Castle” video introduces guests to the site with a four-dimensional theater production in which the ghost of Sarah Morgan, a Civil War-era local resident, explains how the building survived war, fire, scandal, abandonment and an occasional fistfight.
Immersive exhibits examine some of the wild stories from Louisiana politics, including controversial governor Huey Long. Guided group tours reveal conspiracies surrounding the infamous governor, as well as other juicy stories from the state’s political past.
LSU Rural Life Museum
Turning off one of the capital city’s busiest roads, guests suddenly feel as though they have entered a different place in time as they pass pastures and farmland owned by Louisiana State University’s agricultural department before they pull into the LSU Rural Life Museum.
“It is like you are going to a separate rural town in the middle of the city,” said Juarez. “The museum takes you back to the 18th and 19th centuries with wooden houses and artifacts from the time. You walk into the buildings and glimpse how life used to be.”
The outdoor museum displays 32 historic buildings outfitted with relevant artifacts from Louisiana’s early years as a state. Cajun-style homes, a pioneer cabin, a shotgun house and a dogtrot home are used to tell the state’s cultural ancestry.
The Working Plantation section and its slave cabins, sick house, schoolhouse and blacksmith shop show how the labor force needed to maintain a 19th-century plantation lived. Group tours help guests navigate the maze of homes, outbuildings and other historic structures.
At the Exhibit Barn, hundreds of artifacts common in rural regions of the state help visitors imagine the backbreaking work of farming during the 19th century with farming equipment, tools and utensils.
Groups can also enjoy a Louisiana’s natural side at the connected Windrush Gardens, with its ancient live oaks, crape myrtles, azaleas and other Southern flora.
USS Kidd Veterans Memorial and Museum
Small bunk beds crammed into tiny rooms convey the constricted daily lives of crewmen aboard a typical a World War II-era naval ship. The USS Kidd Veterans Memorial and Museum lets visitors wander through over 50 inner spaces in a Fletcher-class destroyer, restored to its 1945 appearance.
“There are tons of nooks and crannies you can explore,” said Juarez. “It’s interesting to see how compact everything is. It definitely gives you some insight into U.S. history.”
Groups can tour the warship’s diminutive kitchen, bathrooms and office areas by way of a series of steps that run up and down the ship’s levels. As they walk the deck, visitors can imagine the controlled chaos that occurred each time the battleship engaged in conflict during World War II, which was frequent.
Today, the ship is docked on the Mississippi River, the only destroyer restored to its World War II appearance. Guests can learn more about its key role in the war in the site’s Veterans Museum.
The museum not only honors those who fought on the ship, now a National Historic Landmark, but also all U.S. military. Exhibits display a P-40 aircraft, over 40 ship models and a full-scale replica of the gun deck of Old Ironsides.
The complex’s Louisiana Memorial Plaza reminds guests of the sacrifices paid by servicemen and women with an eternal flame and other symbolic displays.
Capitol Park Museum
A 48-foot wooden shrimp boat, a glittering Mardi Gras float and a two-row sugar cane harvester all loom large and grab the attention of visitors to the Capitol Park Museum. Focused on the culture and history of Louisiana, the museum uses interactive and flashy exhibits to place guests inside the historic narrative rather than simply explaining with words.
“If your group has never been to Louisiana, the museum gives them a very overarching glimpse of how we celebrate life and culture,” said Juarez. “They also have a lot of photo ops, such as an actual Lucky Dogs hot dog stand that you would see in the French Quarter.”
The museum highlights the state’s many intertwined cultures , such as American Indian, French, British, African American and Cajun. Some of this rich culture has influenced music, which guests can hear in the music section of the museum. Sounds of Cajun, zydeco, swamp pop, Baton Rouge blues and New Orleans jazz reflect the state’s overlapping heritages.
Exhibits also showcase Louisiana’s historic events with artifacts such as a rare Civil War submarine and trophy antlers won by Robert E. Lee in the Great Steamboat Race of 1870.