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Voodoo Museum.
Want to get lucky in New Orleans? Some visitors leave pennies on a Voodoo Museum altar.

Voodoo Museum

Field review by the editors.

New Orleans, Louisiana

Don't be afraid to visit the Voodoo Museum. No one will try to hex you or turn you into a human pincushion, and the person taking your admission is not a glassy-eyed zombie. In fact, the museum strives to be non-sensational -- but it's a losing battle when the displays include a half-human/half-alligator monster and lots of real human skulls.

La Grande Zombi snake dance.
La Grande Zombi snake dance, painted by museum founder Voodoo Charlie.

The museum opened in 1972, the vision of the late Charles "Voodoo Charlie" Gandolfo and his younger brother Jerry, both lifelong residents of New Orleans. Despite Charles' nickname, neither brother practiced Voodoo; they simply recognized that New Orleans was the Voodoo Capital of the U.S., and that it needed a museum.

All religions have totems that seem strange to the unconverted, but Voodoo seems to have more than most. The small museum is crammed with strings of garlic; tombstones from cemeteries; altars laden with beads and small change; African-style drums, statuettes, and masks; candles and horse jaw rattles; a piece of wood that was used by New Orleans' long-dead Voodoo Queen; and, of course, lots of Voodoo dolls, although Jerry said they're really just misunderstood effigies.

Baron Samedi and a Rougarou.
Baron Samedi and a Rougarou, bony and leathery Voodoo ambassadors.

And the human skulls? "That's our employee retirement plan," Jerry said.

The museum's walls are filled with images of Voodoo ceremonies and celebrities, mostly painted by Charles. Explanatory signs are everywhere, trying to dispassionately describe what you're looking at -- but any religion that features snakes and simulated sex as parts of its ceremony, and that suggests mixing menstrual blood into food as a love potion, is bound to shock some visitors.

Voodoo, you learn, is a gumbo of borrowed beliefs from West Africa, Haiti, and Old School European Catholicism. "It has no scripture, so there's no right way to do it," said Jerry, who patiently answers questions from anyone who stops in. The museum does its best to explain the differences between Voodoo and Hoodoo, and Juju and Mojo, as well as the four different types of Zombies, and Voodoo's tight connection with jazz.

Voodoo dolls.
Voodoo dolls.

Louis Armstrong, according to one display, owed his early start in jazz (he was only 13) to his knowledge of Voodoo. Jazz pioneer Jelly Roll Morton was a Zombie. "Morton dropped dead when he was 50," said Jerry, because his soul, kept in a special jar, hadn't been fed in four days (The museum has a similar soul jar as one of its exhibits). How do you feed a soul? Jerry was vague. "It's not like feeding a neighbor's cat," he said.

One of the museum's several working altars is piled with cosmetics. "That's Rose Frank," said Jerry. Rose was a priestess who worked with the museum; she died at 31 in the middle of a Voodoo ceremony. "But her spirit's still alive," said Jerry, and since Rose specialized in matters of romance, offerings at her altar are intended to appeal to her vanity. Two of Roses's daughters stop by occasionally to clean it off.

We noticed that many of the offerings scattered around the museum were pennies. Jerry said they're left by visitors who "want spirits to like them, but who come unprepared." Nobody, however, likes pennies, and although Jerry was too tactful to say it, we suspect that if you offer a spirit pennies at the Voodoo Museum, you're not gonna get much help.

Skulls accumulate wish coins.
Orifice overload: Skulls impaled on a cemetery gate in the Voodoo Museum are jammed with offerings.

According to Jerry, the museum routinely gathers all the loose change and deposits it in the Poor Box of the neighborhood church.

As for the half-human/half-alligator: it's a Rougarou, which can steal your soul just by looking at you. Next to him in the museum stands the bony Baron Samedi. "He usually appears as a skeleton," reads an accompanying sign, "wearing an undertaker's top hat, smoking a cigar, and sporting a pair of sunglasses with one lens missing."

Praise or damn the pantheon of Voodoo spirits; at least they're never dull.

"People come out [of the museum] and tell me that spirits talked to them; they saw their ancestors; they got cold in the summer or hot in the winter," said Jerry. "We get that all the time." But Jerry attributes these occurrences to predispositions of visitors, rather than anything in the Voodoo Museum.

"The worst are the paranormal investigators," he said. "I guarantee they'll find a ghost anywhere. One time they came running out screaming, 'There are two ghosts back there!' And I said, 'Oh? Only two?'"

Voodoo Museum

New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum

724 Dumaine St., New Orleans, LA
New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum. In the French Quarter, on the west side of Dumaine St. between Bourbon and Royal Sts.
Daily 10-6 (Call to verify) Local health policies may affect hours and access.
Adults $8.
RA Rates:
Major Fun
Save to My Sights

Nearby Offbeat Places

Oldest Bar in the U.S.Oldest Bar in the U.S., New Orleans, LA - < 1 mi.
Marie Laveau House of VoodooMarie Laveau House of Voodoo, New Orleans, LA - < 1 mi.
Cabildo Museum - Death Mask, LeechesCabildo Museum - Death Mask, Leeches, New Orleans, LA - < 1 mi.
In the region:
Cemetery Chapel with Hands and Feet, New Orleans, LA - 1 mi.

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