Memories of New Orleans, part 1 — Backstreet Cultural Museum

Mardi Gras was last week, which got me thinking of my own wild time in New Orleans nearly a year ago. By “wild time”, I’m of course referring to my museum visits. Alright, alright, I still have a bag of loot from Orpheus Krewe, but those are tales for another day. Today, I’m going to leap back a year (har-har)  and talk about some pretty cool museums down yonder, starting with…

The Backstreet Cultural Museum

Tour guide Robert at the Backstreet Cultural History Museum

Robert, our guide, tells us about the symbols in each "chief" costume

It really doesn’t get more “backstreet” than this little gem. It’s a hole in the wall, taking up just four rooms and a hallway in a shotgun house so nondescript from the outside that at first we wondered if we’d come to the right place. Surprisingly and happily, they have a pretty snazzy website, and while good web design can help museums connect with people who may never visit in person, I can’t emphasize enough that the real treat comes from actually being there, amongst the costumes and tiny old televisions and newspaper clippings. There’s so much more to the cultural traditions of New Orleans than you’ve ever heard, and it’s worth it to get the scoop straight from the source — the artifacts themselves, and the locals who serve as your tour guide through the rooms. “It’s only four rooms,” you say, “why would I need a tour guide?” to which I reply: “have you ever had a museum tour guide who personally knew the original owner of the clothing or object on display?” If you get someone like Robert, you won’t just learn about the cultural origins of practices like Mardi Gras tribes, second lines, and the importance of Aid and Pleasure Societies — you’ll come to appreciate that this backstreet culture is still alive and kicking in this community.


Chief costume at the Backstreet Cultural Museum

Can you imagine dancing all day in this 120+ lb suit?

So what fun facts can you expect to discover? For example, the Mardi Gras krewes are in the Quarter, and the tribes are in the Treme (they don’t just do Mardi Gras, they do big Sundays as well). There’s a historic relationship between the African Americans and the Native Americans in the area, hence the term “tribe” and the blending of African and Native American stylistic elements in the costumes (which weigh well over 100 lbs). In fact, the Sioux comes down to NOLA in August for the White Buffalo parade. The Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs each have a set Sunday for their parade every year as well as tailor-made costumes, and while they’re a huge social presence, they also historically served as a sort of insurance policy: you belonged to a certain society and paid your dues to be part of the events, and in return they’d pay for your internment and funeral costs when you died. Now, you may learn some of this info from the labels, but you won’t learn the details or get to know key figures in the community without a guide. In some ways, it’s like the difference between having a hurricane on Bourbon Street and going to a block party with home-made sazeracs and king cakes; both experiences are worth having, but one makes you feel more full and more in the know. Ok, that’s all you get for now, I’m not going to give any more away — you’ll just have to check it out yourself.

I learned more from this one little museum with its printer-paper labels than I’ve learned from many large-scale, glitzy institutions. There’s a time and place for high tech installations, and I’ve certainly been to museums where temporary labels peeling from the walls threw me out of the moment. At this museum though, the medium is the message: the home-made feel cues you in that this is a grassroots effort, put together by the community, for the community. It used to be said that every person has a novel in them, and I think every neighborhood has the potential for a museum like this one.

  • Admission: $8
  • Hours: Tu-Sat, 10am-5pm
  • Bonus: if you go during parade season (late August through late June) they’ll let you know when and where all the Sunday second lines are so you can hop in.
Backstreet Cultural Museum Mission Statement

A museum nerd's dream: mission statement and vision right there on the wall!

    3 Thoughts on “Memories of New Orleans, part 1 — Backstreet Cultural Museum

    1. Pingback: Memories of New Orleans, pt 2 — Southern Food and Beverage Museum | The Juli Theory

    2. Hi would you mind stating which blog platform you’re using?

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      • Juliana on December 20, 2013 at 9:59 am said:

        Hi Moises, I’m using WordPress. They have a huge variety of styles to choose from, though some you have to pay for.
        Hope that helps!

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