Returning to the Mile High City where it was born, The Museum for Black Girls is reopening along the 16thStreet Mall in Denver. Occupying a now-closed Victoria’s Secret building, the museum is working to debut by the end of February in honor of Black History Month.
The museum, which first opened in 2019 in a little shopette in Denver, has gone on to create locations in Houston and Washington D.C. Since closing its locations in Denver in 2021, the goal has always been to bring it back to the place that first welcomed it.
“It was women who thought about it, women who created it and women who built it” says co-founder Von Ross.
A conversation between mother and daughter led to a conversation between aunt and niece, then many conversations between Black women artists and creatives until it eventually became a reality. The Museum of Black Girls, created by Denverites’ Charlie Billingsley and her aunt Von Ross, embraces the idea of strength in community and representation. Paying homage to the essence of Black women and their experience.
“What started off as initially Charlie’s dream, became my dream, became our family’s dream, became our community’s dream. A place where young Black girls can come and be encouraged and inspired” says Ross.
When Charlie Billingsley’s young daughter walked into the kitchen one afternoon after school seeking solace from her mother after being made fun of for the way her hair looked, felt, the shape of her lips and the color of her skin at her predominantly white elementary school, Charlie, in between consoling her daughter, couldn’t help but feel the need to do something bigger.
“Charlie came to me after this interaction and she said ‘I wonder how many other little Black girls feel that way and need that same kind of encouragement’, and so it kind of started from there” says Ross. “Charlie, who’s a photographer, has always done work that is a tribute to Black women. And this particular year, 2019, she said that she wanted to do something different, and she had a friend who had owned a clothing boutique who was thinking about shutting it down. Charlie called me and she said, what do you think about us taking over the space, and then doing a museum? And I said, sounds like a great idea. Let’s do it. And so what was supposed to be just for one night turned into something much larger. That night after opening day, I told my niece, ‘this is bigger than us, it’s bigger than you. It’s what the community needs” says Ross.
Over 300 people showed up that first night. Some drove from as far away as Kansas, to experience the interactive art installations, immersive rooms, and curated moments created by Black women. In the tiny 700 square foot neighborhood shopette they encapsulated the essence of Black girl magic. Ross realized the potential for greatness. The Museum quickly became a permanent, traveling exhibition.
“Our museum is like a traditional museum and Meow Wolf got married and had a kid,” says Ross.
Across all the museum locations the main goal is to motivate, encourage, educate, and inspire people in a fun way. “We celebrate the achievements of Black women and the contributions they have made to our country, the inventions that we’ve made, how we’ve contributed in terms of our political views, the arts, music, dance, theater. So we highlight those and then we highlight some things that are staples in the Black community and explain it and educate on it. So we’re hoping that our exhibits educate, motivate, inspire and that they help to bridge gaps.”
Beyond educating people, the museum serves as a love letter to Black women and their experience. Guests, no matter their race, can resonate with the stories behind the exhibits.
“We find out that we are more alike than we are different and we get to celebrate the differences. When you have an understanding of where people are coming from, then it dispels the fears and the myths,” says Ross.
“We have flowers all through the space and Charlie says she wants to give Black girls their flowers. Oftentimes we don’t get celebrated in all walks of life, all that celebration comes at the end, and she says no, I want to give it to people now. So we always have flowers in the space,” says Ross.
Mirrors are a staple as well. The mirrors serve as a reminder to everybody who walks past them that they are strong and courageous and can do anything they put their minds to, something that the space celebrates. In addition, an affirmation wall is also present in the spaces, with the belief that many of the greatest ideas have sprouted simply from just writing them down with a pen and paper. The wall is a place where people can write down their own aspirations and dreams and encourage others’ aspirations along. Now it is referred to as the magic wall as many people have come back to relay that their wishes had come true. Another recurring aspect of the museum is the music.
“We play music in the space and we play it quite loudly. Not to the point is uncomfortable but one of our rules is that we never want dead air. So the music that we play is uplifting, encouraging, fun music. So people come in the door dancing and then they see something that excites them in the corner and they run right over and they’re smiling and they’re reading” says Ross.
One of the exhibits that will be featured in the new location speaks to many little Black girls’ experiences growing up. The exhibit is designed after Billingsley’s grandmother’s kitchen and even features a replica of her pressing comb. Von says growing up “Grandma’s kitchen” was a place where key memories were made, moments of deep bonding and a place where vital discussions on life were had.
“Most little black girls when they first get their hair done for the first time they’re getting it done in grandma’s kitchen. And I mean really done up, you know, maybe for a special event. They’re not going to a salon or something like that, even though those are huge staples in the African American community.”
The museum grew through collaboration with local artists.
“We have days where we start at eight in the morning and we don’t leave the space till two in the morning. And everybody helps each other, we might have two or three different artists working on three different things and they will all help each other if one is struggling. And it just becomes a party, and it’s just fun” says Ross.
Like with the growth of any business space and finances continue to be the biggest roadblocks.
“Everything we do has been funded by Charlie and I with a few donations and contributions from the community. It is a ticketed space and all of the funds go right back into the business to build the exhibits, the upkeep of the exhibits, to pay the staff that you know monitors the space and to pay the artists who contributed to the space. So, it’s totally self funded, and that’s been the biggest roadblock because sometimes the funds aren’t there. You know, we want to do big and great things. And, we’re maxing out personal credit cards to do so. To buy paint and fabric and lighting, and to make sure that it’s an experience where people enjoy themselves” says Ross.
Ross says the Museum for Black Girls is redefining what a museum can be. She says the museum is the first of its kind and she loves how people are embracing it. The Denver Pavilions location is expected to open by the end of February. It also received a six month residency at the museum at University of Colorado Boulder. Work for that will start this summer and will be expected to open up in late January or February of 2024 with the “Museum for Black Girls Presents.” Organizers will be holding panel discussions with CU students on what they would like to see in the space, what’s important to them, and what they would like to experience upon entering.
“A lot of museums concentrate on the past. Whereas in our museum, we concentrate on the present, yes, we honor the past. Absolutely. Where would we be without the strength of our ancestors and what they’ve done for us?” says Ross. “And so we honor the past. We celebrate the present and we look to the future.”