Martin Luther King Jr. weekend saw the grand opening of The Culture Museum at 26th and Walnut in Denver’s Five Points neighborhood. The ambitious effort led by Charlie Billingsley is the artist and entrepreneur’s second installation in Denver, following the Museum for Black Girls which debuted in 2019.
Unlike the placid mood of your average museum, The Culture Museum is alive. Its vibrant, interactive exhibits burst with stories, memories and shared history. One key element — “We never have guests in the space without music,” explained co-founder Von Ross. The walls are covered in murals depicting a diverse history of a culture with many voices. There’s a wall plastered in Source Magazine covers, a boxing ring where you can square up against Mike Tyson, Muhammed Ali or Claressa Shields, and even a barbershop tucked into the corner.
Everything is interactive. You can sit in the barber’s chair, flip cards at the game night table or talk into the mic with the WuTang “W” emblazoned on the wall in front of you. Vendors line the entrance with artists like Zanib, founder of Freedom Waves, selling hand-painted clothes and Egyptian jewelry. Her piece from Billingsley’s last effort — The Museum for Black Girls — still hangs on the wall behind her. “I believe in the vision, to see these visionaries come to life is powerful.”
Each piece shares an artist’s experience with Black culture, be it Motown, Muhammed Ali or shoes hanging from a telephone wire. Ross says it’s to no surprise the museum is humbly described as “The Selfie Museum with heart.” Simply put, the space is an ecstatic celebration of Black culture. Many of the painted particle board murals brought over from The Black Love Mural festival in Civic Center Park last year have been lovingly restored and given new life. The activism of the George Floyd and Breonna Taylor protests breathes from the murals, providing the backdrop for new artists’ expressions of their own experiences.
“We are here to elevate Black creators who might not otherwise get opportunities like this,” Billingsley said.
The museum is a product of community and family developed by Billingsley and Ross, her aunt. It represents a grassroots movement of people being given the opportunity to open up and share something unique from their past. The artists were gathered from an open call on social media and each one has produced something that shaped them and was shared with their community. Walking around, you’ll find artists from around the country working next to friends of Billingsley’s from high school.
“I remember being young and having a dream, you just need some to help you, to give you the space to do it,” said Ross.
Artists draw upon whatever speaks to them the most. Talk to one and you’ll hear stories of growing up watching cartoons, another discusses the role of the barbershop in a young man’s education. “I want to get people in a playful mood,” says Sarah Iverson, standing in front of a larger-than-life MoTown inspired record. “I wanted to bring a little bit of Soul Train and a little Afrofuturism and make it a visual thing.”
The Culture Museum brings together people from all walks of life and is used to host a variety of different events. From pandemic era proms to neo-soul parties, the potential for this energetic exhibit is limitless and Billingsley and Ross want to see how to make the most of it. People come in to reconnect with their roots, to check out the local artists, but most of all to have fun. With music spinning and talented artists all around, it’s impossible not to.
The Culture Museum is located at 1421 26th St., Denver. It is open Friday – Sunday by reservation only. Tickets are $22.
All photos by Adrienne Thomas.