New Orleans isn’t the only city with a Mardi Gras spectacle. In fact, all the way back in 1703, the country’s very first Mardi Gras celebration was held in what is now Mobile, Alabama. That’s fifteen years before New Orleans was founded, and 135 years before the Crescent City organized the first of its popular parades.
Over three centuries of celebrations, Mobile has stacked up quite a collection of Mardi Gras memorabilia. Curators from the Mobile Museum of Art, in partnership with the History Museum of Mobile and the Mobile Carnival Museum, have combed through tons of it (literally) to present “The Art and Design of Mardi Gras,” opening this weekend at the art museum.
The display won’t pretend to be a comprehensive history lesson—its sole focus is the sheer marvel of all the stuff that goes into the year’s most extravagant party. “If anything defines Mardi Gras, it’s sensory overload,” says Mobile Museum of Art director Deborah Velders. “It’s over-the-top because of the incredible creativity in it and the sense of enchantment it invokes.”
The exhibition’s entryway is decked out with two tons of recycled beads wrapping columns in thick strands like a fantastical maypole. One wing is dedicated to the big-picture: paper-mache floats, photographs of parade layouts, and a 65-foot-long collage of historical tableaus that includes William Shakespeare, Al Capone, and many other larger-than-life characters. The next wing showcases intricate costumes—everything from ball gowns to grand marshal costumes and the rainbow garb worn by “mystic societies.” (They aren’t called krewes around here, thank you very much.) The final wing is devoted to ephemera from the late 1870s to present—including masks, shoes, party favors, invitations, jeweled crowns, scepters with hand-placed jewels, and a collection of the aluminum or wooden doubloons thrown during parades.
The exhibition also includes contemporary, Mardi Gras-inspired pieces by Southern sculptors, painters, and filmmakers from Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Texas. There’s even a film of last year’s parade, projected on the walls of a circular gallery, giving visitors a sense of what it’s like to be at the center of the revelry. All told, the three wings of displays make up nearly 16,000 feet of the museum and the entire second floor.
The exhibit will run from November 8 through May 2015. To view it in all of its glorious, gaudy detail, you’ll need the disposable binoculars that come with your admission.
“People have no idea the grandiose way that we celebrate Mardi Gras in the Port City,” Mobile Carnival Association director Judi Gulledge says. “If you’re near Mobile before next May, passing by the exhibit would be something of a lost opportunity.”