The Backstreet Cultural Museum is a showplace for artifacts of the city’s African-American parading traditions, and a base of activity in the cultural community. The Backstreet exists thanks to Sylvester Francis, its founder and proprietor, a longtime Treme resident who has been documenting second lines, jazz funerals, Mardi Gras Indians, Baby Dolls, and Skull and Bone gangs for decades. His collection has been displayed here since 1999, in what used to be the Blandin Funeral Home.
The museum displays several Mardi Gras Indian suits, offering visitors a chance to see their beadwork up close. There are a variety of other objects, too, like sashes from social aid and pleasure clubs and programs from jazz funerals. The collection also includes walls of photographs and an extensive video library of street processions. Francis draws from his collection to curate exhibitions at the Essence Festival and Jazz Fest every year.
Francis’ work is especially valuable considering that, for years, depictions of these parading and masking rituals were created and disseminated by people from outside the community of practitioners. Artists were not always compensated for their contributions, and could find their sacred practices misrepresented to the outside world. Francis, though, is known and respected by these tradition bearers, who donate artifacts to the museum and trust him to present their rituals with care. Francis has become a cultural ambassador, educating visitors about the social context of the spectacles that might otherwise go unexplained.
The Backstreet is a popular destination on Mardi Gras Day, when crowds gather to witness visits from Mardi Gras Indians, Baby Dolls, and the North Side Skull and Bone Gang. As the Treme undergoes post-Katrina gentrification, the Backstreet remains an anchor for the city’s black parading traditions in their historic cradle near Congo Square.
The museum is open Tuesday — Saturday from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. Admission is $10, cash only. To learn more, including how to support the Backstreet, visit backstreetmuseum.org.
Outside the Backstreet Cultural Museum on Mardi Gras Day, members of the White Cloud Hunters Mardi Gras Indians (Big Chief Charles Taylor, in face paint) and the North Side Skull & Bones Gang (including Bruce "Sunpie" Barnes) bust out 'Shoo Fly Don't Bother Me.'
Tootie's Last Suit by Lisa Katzman, with Executive Producers Randy Fertel and Alexa Georges. Buy the DVD.
From WWOZ's Tricentennial Moments: Skull and Bone Gang on the Street.
"Spirit Leads My Needle: The Big Chiefs of Carnival," a half-hour documentary from the Mardi Gras Indian Council.