With a second-line led by Benny Jones and the Tremé Brass Band, the Backstreet Cultural Museum paraded Saturday from its former, storm-ravaged building on Henriette Delille Street to its new home around the corner.
It’s been a difficult two years for the museum. It’s founder, Sylvester “Hawk” Francis, died in 2020 and then the building was heavily damaged during Hurricane Ida. But now, with the museum ensconced in its new home, Francis’ daughter, Executive Director Dominique Dilling-Francis, pledged to keep the tradition alive.
“We made it,” Dilling-Francis said at the ribbon-cutting. “This is for my dad. I plan to keep it going for as long as possible.”
The museum was formally established in 1999, but its roots go back decades earlier, to Francis’ careful efforts to photograph New Orleans’ culture, his efforts to preserve the artistry of Mardi Gras Indian suits and his encyclopedic knowledge of the city. In its early years, that collection was housed in a two-car garage, which soon drew interest and tours.
Since then, the museum has served as a repository for artifacts of the city’s culture, a careful collection of Mardi Gras Indian costumes and memorabilia and accoutrements of Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs, Skull and Bones and Baby Doll groups along with photos, videos and documents related to the city’s parading traditions.
“If we stop, the culture stops. It’s not just the backstreet cultural museum it’s all the museums that represent this culture,” said Dwayne Dilling, Francis’ son and director of the museum.
“If we stop, it dies,” he said.
The museum will be open in its new location at 1531 St. Philip Street from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. from Tuesdays through Saturdays. Admission is $15 for locals and veterans and $20 for visitors to the city.
The first tragedy to strike the museum came when Francis died of appendicitis at the age of 73. Dilling-Francis continued her father’s work after his death.
But almost exactly a year later, Hurricane Ida wrecked the roof of the museum’s old building, which had served as a gathering spot for maskers and organizations. Efforts were made to tarp and dry out the museum, but it was clear that mold and humidity threatened the collection.
Dilling-Francis and volunteers boxed up the costumes, creations and archives as swiftly as possible to rescue the trove of irreplaceable items and store them away safely.
With major renovations needed to repair the old building, Dilling-Francis began to look for a new home. Initially, there was hope of finding an exhibition space in one of the historic Tremé buildings that make up the New Orleans African American museum, but that proposal fell by the wayside, she said.
Happily, Dilling-Francis said that somewhere along the way, she learned of another possible location, a former barroom near Tuba Fats Square.
Dilling-Francis said that the comeback of the Backstreet Cultural Museum was funded in part by individual donations and a grant from the New Orleans Tourism and Cultural Fund, a non-profit agency established by the city in 2020 to aid the cultural community. She declined to say how much money the museum received.
In their new home, mannequins bedecked in Mardi Gras Indian suits and krewe costumes stand along the walls of the one-room museum, with photographs of second lines and organizations over their heads. Only a fraction of the collection can fit in the space, and Dilling-Francis said the plans are to rotate the exhibits through every six months.
Longer term, she said she hopes to be able to expand the museum to encompass more of the building that is its new home.
Beyond documenting the history of the culture, Dilling-Francis said she hopes the museum can help inspire the next generation.
“We have to pull them in now so they don’t fade away from it,” Dilling-Francis said. “So I feel like the more I do this, the more I just do it and we put it out there and say, ‘Hey, look at this, this is a great thing. Get on the bandwagon.”