A visit to a strange museum

The Skeptic, 6.5

The American humorist P J O'Rourke recently likened a summertime visit to New Orleans to taking a sauna in a high-crime drainage ditch. While its hyperactive French Quarter may be a sort of Cajun Blackpool, with all the booze, tacky nightclubs, blaring music, coy peep-shows, and all the giant Lucky Dog frankfurters you can eat, but it also has an unexpected darker side. At 724 Rue Dumaine, sandwiched between a jazz club and a souvenir shop, I found `The New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum'.

After passing the alligator's head and the broom at the entrance, both powerful ju-ju charms to ward of evil spirits, I knew at once that this was probably not the sort of place I would want to visit after dark. The museum was tiny, offering a sense of claustrophobia reminiscent of the downstairs of a small British terraced pre-war semi, where two rooms somehow become inexplicably crammed with stuffed snakes, charms, chicken feathers, talismans, ugly masks, Ve-Ve's, shrunken heads and - most disconcerting of all -  some extremely odd smells. Was there a dead tourist moulding under the floorboards? Walking around the dimly-lit, pungent rooms was like visiting the house of a mad aunt your family doesn't talk about. Given that it claimed to be a `living museum', the vast majority of the exhibits celebrated aspects of death. Almost everything in the place was probably alive at one time or another. After the emphasis on the continuing practice of voodoo, it was a shock to see sacred relics for sale in the Gift Shop. Imagine the souvenirs stall at a Catholic cathedral selling bottled holy water or snacks made from consecrated Host.

Looking after the museum was Kali, a friendly and talkative woman who was happy to answer my skeptical questions with patience. Did 20th century people really believe in this stuff? Were Americans walking around with Gris-Gris charms in their pockets? Were the exhibits the genuine article? Do you practice voodoo? Kali was incredulous that I was incredulous. There were all sorts of services on offer: have a special Gris-Gris mixed for your special needs, consult the Voodoo Queen Miss Black Venus, who was carrying on the tradition of Marie Laveau, the Popess of Voodoo. When I saw the photographs of contemporary Voodoo practitioners on the walls, I realised that these people were deadly serious.

Kali, it emerged, as well as being immersed in New Orleans voodoo, was a member of another mystical order, this time a 20th Century phenomenon. This was Thee Temple ov Psychick Youth (that's how it's supposed to be spelled), an occult and information network initiated by performance artist and writer Genesis P Orridge (although he has since severed all connections with the group). Kali, whose name is the generic name used for females in the, embraced the ideas of voodoo, and saw some of these as dovetailing perfectly with the concepts of TOPY. Unfortunately, exactly what these are is rather hard to determine, since - at least from the literature I have seen -  a basic tenet of TOPY is that... there are no tenets.

If a lifetime of couch-potato addiction to late-night Hammer Horror films (the cheaper the better) and second-hand Dennis Wheatleys, has left you with the impression that Voodoo is something of a pantomime cult, and that Gris-Gris, shrunken skulls, a throbbing beat, and a general air of frenzy didn't seem to add up to much except a sort of occult rave. Whatever its popular profile may be, Voodoo is certainly no joke. Like all religions, when people travel, it travels too. On 18 June of this year, it came remarkably close to home, when The Guardian reported that senior social workers in Hackney had received voodoo dolls sent to them in Jiffy bags.


©Toby Howard 1995

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