End of a Mirage

00:00 December 21, 2013

 The story of the alligator isn’t only biological. It’s social and cultural.  It’s a story of tourism, business and mythology.  In Louisiana, the reptile looms large as an exotic symbol that residents and tourists can experience in restaurants, stores, and swamps.  Its history with humans in the last century has been mostly commercial, represented in consumer culture through fashion, movies, souvenirs, art, and food.
In August 2005, Robert McDade was ready to open the Great American Alligator Museum to exhibit the animal’s ongoing history in our culture.
“When Katrina hit,” McDade said, “all my priorities changed.” He moved his family to Houston so his children could attend school.  When he returned that December, his rental properties were damaged and his tenants scattered.  For eight years the museum sign stayed up at 2051 Magazine Street, but the doors remained locked and the windows dark.  Visitors knocked, twisted the knob, but nobody discovered what was inside.
“I got asked all the time when are we going to open,” McDade said.  “When I’m in here I have to keep that door locked.  If I don’t, someone will walk right in.”  After eight years, McDade now plans to open the museum in 2014, and visitors will get to see what’s been hiding behind its two cypress doors.
Nick Mahshie, a local artist, and Prescott Trudeau, Senior Curator at Southern Food and Beverage Museum, both moved to New Orleans in recent years looking for projects to engage.  They arranged a meeting with McDade to pitch a plan to help open the museum, but first they wanted to see inside.   
“We had no idea what was behind those doors,” Trudeau said. “It could have been nothing or it could have been everything. What we discovered was probably the largest collection of alligator-related artifacts the world has ever seen, and right here in New Orleans.”
“We very quickly shook hands,” McDade said. “Because [my wife and I] were at a point where we were wondering if we were ever going to open.”
McDade is a collector.  His interest in gators began with an interest in biology.  To make money for graduate school he moved from New York to Houma as a ‘roustabout,’ navigating the swamps to patch leaky oil pipelines.  Enchanted with the swamps, he stayed in southern Louisiana to become a petroleum engineer.  He used his capital to continue his interest in science, opening a rock and fossil shop with his wife and collecting minerals, bones, and alligator parts.  They sold alligator items in the French Market and started an online retail site, The Alligator King.
 “I can’t say I’m obsessed with alligators,” McDade said.  “But I recognize the potential to assemble a collection.  Once we acquired what I would call a couple key pieces, we said we almost need to open a museum.”
The first key piece was a 14 feet, 900 pound taxidermy American Alligator that occupies the center of the museum floor.
“That won’t fit in my living room.  I had to open a museum to house it,” McDade joked. The museum’s “crown jewel,” though, is a 55 million year old fossil of a Green River Formation alligator from Wyoming, which McDade loaned to Chicago’s Field Museum for research and replication this year.  He surrounded his key items with an amalgam of everything alligator in both biological and commercial contexts: movie posters, beers, 1950’s alligator-leather purses, skins, slippers, alligators anthropomorphized in various sizes, advertisements, fossilized dung, and an incredible collection of kitsch.
“I think I have every alligator salt and pepper shaker ever made,” McDade said.
But the museum is not ready for visitors.  Trudeau and Mahshie plan to organize the collection into an interactive narrative experience. The museum will include video games, a swamp shack, a folk art gallery, and a tank of live baby alligators.  Tour operators will use the museum as a pick-up point for swamp tours.
“It’s going to be a kooky place,” Trudeau said. “It’s going to be an eccentric, New Orleans experience.  As much as we’re celebrating the prehistory and antediluvian origins of the alligator, we’re also celebrating the weird and wonderful side of New Orleans.”  
McDade hopes to open the museum in the spring of 2014, but the timing will depend on funding.  He is trying to raise $450,000 in a current Indiegogo campaign to open and operate the museum in its first year.  The amount is ambitious, but McDade offers rewards to contributors.
Most exciting is the idea that the museum, like the alligator, will always be evolving.  After all, McDade is a collector.  He is not obsessed with alligators, but instead it seems he is obsessed with the act of collecting.  The opening of the museum will only encourage him to continue, giving a singular home here in New Orleans to a growing cultural symbol: the great American Alligator.
To learn more visit gatormuseum.com.

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