DENHAM SPRINGS -- After months of preparation, the Smithsonian’s traveling Water/Ways Exhibit was officially unveiled to the public during an opening ceremony at the Old City Hall Museum on Saturday, Aug. 11.
The 78-year-old building, first dedicated in 1940, bustled with activity as people of all ages came to see the displays of the Smithsonian’s acclaimed exhibit, one of just six sites in the state and the only one within a 50-mile radius of Denham Springs.
The exhibit, comprised of kiosks, large panels and interactive features, dives into the endless motion of the water cycle and water’s effect on landscape, people’s settlement, migration, culture and spirituality. It also looks at how economic and political factors have affected control of water resources and how human creativity can provide new ways of protecting these invaluable resources.
The exhibit is being housed on both floors of Old City Hall, located at 115 Mattie Street in the Denham Springs Antique Village. The exhibit is five parts, each covering different aspects of water. It will run until Sept. 22.
Along with what came in the exhibit, organizers were also allowed to add their own “local flair,” board member Pat Genre said.
Perhaps the most eye-popping piece — and the one that drew the most attention Saturday — was a mural that Gwen Bennett painted to depict a Louisiana swamp scene. The mural, which hangs on the first floor of Old City Hall, covers three canvases that stretch from ceiling to floor, and it will remain in the museum after the exhibit’s run.
At the end of Bennett’s painting stands a handmade pirogue, built by Jules Lambert, who will lead a pirogue-building class at the Arts Council of Livingston Parish starting at 11 a.m. on Aug. 18. A glass case containing smaller boats and other woodwork is displayed nearby.
Other attention grabbers Saturday were a collection of photographs taken during and after the Great Flood of 2016, as well as a collection of typed letters from survivors of the natural disaster.
The exhibit also features many works of art made by local high schoolers reflecting on their flood experiences.
Several local and federal dignitaries spoke during the exhibit’s opening ceremony, held one day before the two-year anniversary of the Great Flood of 2016. The gathering served as an opportunity for people to thank first responders who offered assistance during the August 2016 flood that dumped unprecedented amounts of water across south Louisiana.
U.S. Congressman Garret Graves, one of the day’s many speakers, said: “One of the most remarkable things about this flood… was the response of the community. Let’s be honest, it wasn’t that we had all these federal government boats… and helicopters coming in. It was us.
“The most amazing thing about that whole flood, and I hope it’s memorialized and documented forever, is the fact that this community came together in an unbelievable way to offer a helping hand to one another.”
Denham Springs Mayor Gerard Landry added: “When this event happened, we weren’t expecting that kind of water. So we were obviously taken by surprise… and it was just all hands on deck, do whatever you can to save whoever you can. Everybody just came together.”
Said Livingston Parish President Layton Ricks: “We’re coming back stronger than ever. The people are resilient, our business owners have been resilient. They’re all determined to come back.”
Another guest speaker was Miranda Restovic, president/executive director of the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities (LEH), which approved Denham Springs Main Street for a $5,000 grant for the exhibit, with the Walton Family Foundation donating funds.
Restovic told those in attendance that Denham Springs has “a very special story to tell… and a very special relationship to water.”
“I hope this is an opportunity to engage the entire community around a really important topic, about what it means to live with water, the good and the bad,” she said. “It’s an important topic that we all have to keep talking about and addressing because water is necessary, but it can also hurt us.”
Restovic later added: “We [at the LEH] are most privileged when we can bring these kinds of exhibits and conversations to the heart of Louisiana, and Denham Springs is a perfect example of the kind of town that makes the heart of Louisiana.”
The dedication ceremony kicked off two months’ worth of community events and programs related to the exhibit.
Two film presentations and discussions will take place at the Denham Springs-Walker Branch of the Livingston Parish Library. The first, titled “Station 15,” will be held from 7-8:30 p.m. on Aug. 23. The second film discussion, titled “Diversions,” will take place from 7-8:30 p.m. on Aug. 30.
Adin Putnam, author of “Rising Above: The Flood of 2016,” will discuss his book and lead a discussion of the flood from 1-3 p.m. on Sept. 1 at the Denham Springs-Walker Branch. Putnam’s book, which is currently on display in Old City Hall, is a 32-page collection of photographs he took documenting the flood.
On Sept. 20, Jessica H. Schexnayder and Mary H. Manhein, who co-authored “Fragile Grounds: Louisiana’s Endangered Cemeteries,” will lead a discussion on their book in connection with waterways. The one-time community book club meeting will be held at 7 p.m. at Old City Hall.
At 6 p.m. on Aug. 25, retired Lt. Gen. Russel L. Honore’ — who became famous after commanding Joint Task Force Katrina following the 2005 disaster in New Orleans — will be the featured guest of a sit-down interview with Landry at New City Hall. The public is invited.
One program will be held outdoors — “Paddle Down the Amite,” in which participants will travel on paddle boats down the Amite River. John Cavalier, owner of Cavalier House Books, will spearhead the event to be held Sept. 8.
Additionally, the Arts Council of Livingston Parish is currently hosting an exhibit titled “The Way of Water,” which will run until the end of the Water/Ways Exhibit at Old City Hall.
The Water/Ways Exhibit is free to the public and will be open from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday and from 1-5 p.m. on Sundays.