Community museums, New Orleans style

Simon Stephens, 29.05.2019
A tour of grassroots museums
New Orleans is known worldwide for its music, food and hospitality, but the city also has a long tradition of political activism, community solidarity and mutual support. This year’s American Alliance of Museums (AAM) annual conference included tours of some of the venues that explain, preserve and celebrate this history.

I chose to go on the Grassroots Museums Tour, which included visits to the Backstreet Cultural Museum and the Lower Ninth Ward Living Museum. Both venues embody the spirit of defiance of the city’s African American community in the face of centuries of oppression.

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The Backstreet Cultural Museum in Tremé opened 20 years ago in the oldest African American neighbourhood in New Orleans. It tells the story of cultural traditions such as the Mardi Gras carnival celebrations. 

29052019-mask-backstreet-cultural-museumThe museum features a wide range of material associated with the Mardi Gras Indian tradition, including some spectacular costumes. The idea of the Mardi Gras Indian is rooted in a legacy of resistance, being linked to enslaved Africans escaping the dehumanising violence of plantations and finding safety with Native Americans.

The Lower Ninth Ward Living Museum has a very different feel and tells its story mainly through photographs, film and accompanying text. It brilliantly describes how the ward has been constantly isolated and neglected by the rest of the city, leading up to its devastation by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The museum was created in 2011 in response to the painfully slow rebuilding of the Lower Ninth.

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One of the most remarkable things about the museum is board member Leona Tate, who played a crucial early role in the civil rights movement when she became one of the first African Americans to attend a formerly white-only school in Louisiana. Tate, who shared her experiences with those of us on the tour, was just six years old in 1960 when she and two others were escorted by federal marshals through a crowd of protesters to attend the McDonogh #19 Public School.

The Lower Ninth Ward Living Museum and the Backstreet Cultural Museum are fantastic examples of communities deciding that they want tell their own story and choosing a museum as a way to do this. They combine a spirit of independence with a deep commitment to improving people’s lives, which is truly inspiring. 

Later this year, Museums Journal will publish a feature on the new breed of community-led museums springing up in the UK.

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