City Life

The Ordinary Extraordinary: Making History Tangible at the Colored Girls Museum

February 18, 2021 | by Starr Herr-Cardillo

Vashti DuBois outside the Colored Girls Museum in Germantown. | Photo: Zamani Feelings

Editor’s Note: A version of this story was published in the Winter 2021 issue of Extant, a publication of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia.

In her long history, the 130-year old Victorian twin at 4613 Newhall Street in Germantown has taken on a variety of roles. A home through most of her history, she is now both home and museum, a museum of living history, containing a shifting assortment of objects, mementos and artworks belonging to and created by “ordinary colored girls.” At The Colored Girls Museum (TCGM), history, neither relegated to the past, nor bound up in precious fragile artifacts, is made tangible through what Founder and Executive Director Vashti DuBois calls the “ordinary extraordinary.” Beneath the roof of her home, where she founded the museum in 2015, “an entity” she addresses with feminine pronouns, the shared experiences of regular women and girls gain strength and meaning as part of a collective remembering. 

I recently spoke with DuBois and Education Director Melina Gooray about their vision for the museum, its distinctive approach to history, community, and collective memory, and the potential and limitations of historic preservation to support TCGM’s mission. 

Starr Herr Cardillo: The underlying philosophy guiding TCGM recognizes that the house fulfills her role in service to her larger community, one directly impacted by legacies of slavery and racism. The driving question that guides the museum’s mission is: “what can a museum do?”

Vashti DuBois: By inviting the submission of other ordinary Black women and girls’ art and artifacts –that are significant to them– [the museum] activates a much bigger story than any singular story. We’re interested in what happens when you bring these objects together in these different spaces… around concerns that impact this community, which has been fragmented in so many ways because of racism, because of displacement, because of segregation. She begins to knit back together a collective memory.

Melina Gooray: When I think of the house museum… it’s usually very centered on decorative arts and culture, approximating a certain moment in time or honoring one person of significance. There’s this sort of freezing of time. I think we’re more concerned with breaking the boundaries of ‘significance,’ so we center the experiences of ordinary extraordinary colored girls, because we believe that everyday Black women and girls are significant. 

We’re also prioritizing a collective, so we’re really trying to think about African diasporic culture at large and as it relates to women. We would position ourselves as a Black museum and not an African American museum because we’re trying to speak to a larger Black experience. 

SHC: The museum, Du Bois says, pays tribute to the legacy of  Black women and girls who, throughout history, “do the work that gets done.”

VD: Ordinary Black women and girls are really the folks that we look to for every movement that we’ve ever had. So many significant gains that have been made around the world have had ordinary Black women and girls at the helm.

SHC: In traditional museums, DuBois continues, importance and unimportance are implied by what items are included and who is represented. TCGM flips that power dynamic by bestowing “ordinary colored girls” with the power to curate and control the narrative.

VD: What happens when whiteness is not the center of the experience? What can we all learn from that, what can we take from that? That, to me, is some of the critical work of TCGM. It challenges this idea that you have to go to school for years, make no money, before you can become a curator. The truth of the matter is that all of us grew up being curators. You don’t need a PhD in museology to do that, because curation is storytelling. It’s storytelling with a purpose. 

We do not prioritize collections at this museum. We prioritize people, we prioritize community. We’re a beautiful place, but we’re not trying to be a pretty place that people come and visit.

The point is about the conversation that this art and these artifacts are having with one another. [We’re] not reinventing systems of hierarchy, but really thinking very differently — about how art can be healing, how artifacts can trigger a very necessary set of memories for future and present good. ….Creating different pathways for people to access meaning is something that I’m really excited to be a part of. 

Artist Serena Saunders with muse Myka Ollison looking at a portrait for the upcoming exhibition “First Time Ever I saw Your Face.” | Photo: Zamani Feelings

SHC: Those “different pathways” begin even before visitors step inside. Even when there isn’t a pandemic, you can’t simply walk in and visit The Colored Girls Museum. Visitors must make an appointment for a guided tour, a personalizing touch that is part of what Du Bois calls the intentional “choreography” of the experience. It leaves a lasting impression, particularly on young visitors.

VD: It’s fantastic because, you know, they don’t know what to expect. They come with a set of expectations about what a museum should be, should look like, that’s based on their other experiences. It’s transformational to be able to bear witness to them coming through this space and realizing that, above all else, a museum can be for them. They feel it! They can recognize it. And part of that of course is because it’s available–it’s in a house! That they can relate to it is very, very important because there’s a way that they can enter into a conversation. They may come into a space and go, “this smells like my grandma’s house.” 

SHC: The history of  Black art and cultural movements, which often developed in what DuBois calls “home space,” informs TCGM’s mission and ethos. 

VD: Black folks have always done double-duty around how we think about art, education, organizing, politics, all of these things. So, … this is sort of the centerpiece of how we’ve organized ourselves to do this work at The Colored Girls Museum It certainly comes out of a tradition in the Black community, including thinking about how home space has always really been political space and organizing space for Black folks. During segregation you had to do things where you could. Home space was the one-room schoolhouse for many things, it’s where political organizing happened, it’s where education happened, it’s where art and culture happened. And so we’re really just building out of a historical understanding of how Black folks have always done our work.

SHC: This summer TCGM launched a capital campaign to assist with building repair and post-Covid 19 reopening costs. Gooray and DuBois said they have cautiously been exploring historic designation for the museum’s building, but limitations imposed by the traditional preservation framework and the potential impact on the surrounding community raise some big questions. Under the traditional model, the case for designation can’t be made in connection to any one person, architect, or event. Because the house on its own doesn’t meet any of the criteria for individual significance, Gooray said it would likely need to be nominated as part of the larger Victorian development where it is located. 

MG: It is difficult when you don’t have historical status or fit into the standardized norms in a system …designed to elevate a specific type of history, a specific way of telling history. In my understanding, a lot of the preservation frameworks don’t apply to the way our museum is interpreting history, [and are] not necessarily inclusive of all of the differences in history telling and making and understanding for Black communities. We are very historical, we’re just not dealing with history in the same way. We’re playing with temporality, we’re converging histories, we are trying to capture a collective history-making. 

There are also archival gaps — gaps in information in our understanding of the history of the home, or of the Black community in Germantown or even Philadelphia at large, and these …make getting things like historic preservation status more difficult. And being left out of that status can foreclose the opportunity to get certain grants to preserve our building. 

As a Black-centered organization, something that we’re concerned about is the intersection of preservation and gentrification. What would it mean to get historic status in terms of making sure that we’re being good neighbors to our Black neighbors and not making property values unaffordable in a neighborhood that is already gentrifying?

Curator Michael Clemmons with guests. Exhibition “The Colored Girls Museum: Open for Business.” | Photo: Zamani Feelings

SHC: Beyond the logistical hurdles and impacts of preservation policy, there also exists a philosophical discord between the type of work that the museum strives to do and the ends and means that “preservation” has historically served. 

VD: When we look at traditional museums, which are also a preservationist model …putting things in formaldehyde…I do believe that’s a different aesthetic around time and history … that doesn’t really speak to how Black people would …articulate our understanding of time. 

We have to engage with time in a different way. Enslavement didn’t just take a toll on the body, it also stole and rewrote our sense of history. So this is a really incredible way to, in a sense, not be confined by the limited language we have to articulate what the consequences of enslavement were, specifically …for Black women and girls. 

If you think of the history of racism in this country, preservation would be exactly what one would want to do. Because you’d always be trying to return to that moment, of trying to keep it as it was. In trying to preserve, you also deprive yourself of the opportunity to understand how time and evolution create these other layers of story and beauty that are necessary and important.

Really the only way I would use the word “preservation” is to talk about how we might initiate a conversation about the need to create policies around holding land in places, like Germantown, that have historically been predominantly Black and are being targeted for gentrification. What kind of policy do we need to be thinking about and what kind of models exist already? How is a structure like TCGM positioned to really drive a conversation like that? 

SHC: Over the past several years, a number of Germantown historic houses, and historic sites across the country, have updated the ways in which they represent and tell the stories of former Black residents–those primarily tend to be about enslaved individuals who lived on site. But DuBois is calling for something much larger, suggesting that in order to really do meaningful work, cultural institutions must examine their roles as “dangerous silent partners” in anti-blackness. 

 VD: If institutions …adopted our curious approach and really seriously engaged with the question “what can a museum do?” I think that would provide an opening for new conversations. This is what The Colored Girls Museum is up to. She’s asking us to ask ourselves “what can a museum do?” She believes that museums have a particular kind of power and an absolute responsibility to citizens to do work, especially in a time like this. It is not okay to not be doing the work of the people right now.

You cannot continue to say you want to provide more opportunities for “other people,” but the only way they can get those opportunities is to put themselves in positions with the very people that created those conditions in the first place, which is a tall charge, I realize. The script has to be thrown out the window. If cultural institutions were willing to give up the power that they’re wielding in this domain, they might have the most power to shift this relationship. 

SHC: At a time when cultural institutions across the board are rushing to feature, uplift, and highlight Black artists, thinkers, and efforts in support of Black Lives Matter, DuBois’s reflection offers vital clarity about the limitations of those efforts: they are not enough. Meaningful change only comes from challenging the status quo and relinquishing and redistributing resources. If they’re willing to truly rise to the occasion, DuBois says, cultural institutions are in powerful positions to challenge their anti-black histories and set an example that’s worthy of the moment.

Protecting Her Community in a Pandemic, TCGM Moves Online

Part of the “Songs of Toni Morrison” exhibition. The show featured works by artists inspired by quotes from the late novelist. | Photo: Zamani Feelings

Normally at the end of the summer when we spoke, DuBois and her team at TCGM would be preparing to open a new exhibition. The pandemic, however, has forced them to pivot to an online format. And so TCGM’s focus now rests on addressing and documenting the key public health issues impacting Black women and girls living through the pandemic. Via Instagram, TCGM has been highlighting objects and stories submitted by “ordinary colored girls,” who share personal items that have been helping them get through the current moment. This simple act of documentation, DuBois says, “creates a map and a record” of how Black women and girls are responding to this time in history. 

In lieu of the girls’ program that TCGM normally hosts, they have created what DuBois calls a “virtual one-room schoolhouse.” DuBois says the project is driven by the fact that Black women, as caregivers and workers, face multiple challenges at this time. The “schoolhouse” provides an accessible forum to both host conversations and disseminate information into the community. The focus of the schoolroom is both creating and empowering others to create “alternative educational options” that attend to the “emotional, spiritual, and psychological impact of this moment on Black communities,” which are disproportionately impacted by Covid-19 and the economic instability it continues to cause.

As timely and necessary as these adjustments are, I couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed that it’s not possible to visit the museum right now. DuBois’ vision for TCGM is so compelling, I was eager to engage with the house and the stories she has to tell. Du Bois reassured me. “You will. She’ll be here, but right now she’s protecting herself against Covid, like all the other entities are, as best she can.”


About the Author

Starr Herr-Cardillo is a staff writer for Hidden City Daily. When she’s not covering local preservation issues or writing editorials for Hidden City, she works as a historic preservation professional in the nonprofit sector. Born and raised in Tucson, Arizona, Herr-Cardillo was drawn to the field by a deep affinity for adobe and vernacular architecture. She holds a Certificate in Heritage Conservation from the University of Arizona and an M.S. in Historic Preservation from PennDesign.

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