Get lost in Atlanta’s small, independent museums

A look at the Madame C.J. Walker Museum and the Collectible and Antique Chair Gallery

Madame C.J. Walker Museum
Museum owner Ricci de Forest with his collection of over 15,000 records.

Photograph by Audra Melton

Twenty-five years ago, Ricci de Forest couldn’t take his eyes off a small, unused storefront at the corner of Auburn Avenue and Hilliard Street. “Mme. C.J. Walker’s Beauty Shoppe” was etched into the glass panes, and as a well-traveled hairstylist, de Forest was drawn to the history of Walker’s salons in his own neighborhood. After driving by it for 10 years, he stopped and knocked on the door in 1999. He met the landlord, who offered to lease him the salon.

De Forest originally planned to operate his own salon from the location. While cleaning, he discovered dozens of beauty tools from the 1940s, still in drawers among vintage beauty chairs.

A local woman stopped by to welcome him to Sweet Auburn and let him know what was upstairs. WERD, the first radio station owned and operated by Black Americans, started on the second floor, broadcasting the music of Black artists and the sermons of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. After learning what he’d stumbled upon, his goal became preservation of this history-condensed corner of Sweet Auburn. “I was a global hairstylist, and it was all eyes on me,” de Forest says. “Through this building, I learned about what my predecessors went through that allowed me to do what I do, and it completely altered my purpose.”

Small, independent museums like de Forest’s dot Atlanta, commemorating underrepresented or unique histories and art. They operate out of storefronts or houses and largely rely on a team of one, who keeps the museum afloat through donations or their day job. At the Madame C.J. Walker Museum, de Forest charges a $7 admission, collects donations, and will sometimes cut hair right there in the museum to help keep things running.

When you enter Walker’s former salon, your body stops itself at the door to take it all in. The museum is a dual space, filled to the brim with both beauty tools and floor-to-ceiling shelves of records. De Forest guides you to the right side of the room first. A vintage beauty chair sits in front of a vanity that displays flat irons, clippers, and an operational hair dryer from the 1940s.

Madame C.J. Walker Museum
The Madame C.J. Walker Museum features salon tools that date back to the 1940s.

Photograph by Audra Melton

De Forest sits you in the beauty chair to tell you about the photos on the wall. They show the pioneers of Black hair salons, from Annie Turnbo Malone and Sara Spencer Washington to, finally, Madame C.J. Walker, who franchised this location to the Black women who trained in her famed salon school as stylists. “Colored Only” signs line the wall to remind visitors of the segregation laws that created the need for the salon.

On the left side of the room, over 15,000 records, dating from the 1920s to the 1980s, commemorate WERD’s influence. The ceiling displays portraits of musicians from the museum’s featured eras, and de Forest challenges you to name 20 artists from their photos, in exchange for a free 45.

Madame C.J. Walker Museum

Photograph by Audra Melton

On a cold day in January, Dwayne Go, who helps de Forest with the museum’s social media, brings his son, Terrell, to attempt the challenge. While his son slowly gets to 20, Go and de Forest dole out anecdotes on the artists and their music. “I love this place because you step into an entire vibe,” Go says. “This isn’t an exhibit, but instead a time capsule, and in my opinion, that makes it more of a museum than any other museum I’ve been to.”

In Stone Mountain, another unique museum occupies a small house, built in 1850 and inhabited through the Civil War. Barbara Hartsfield owns and operates the Collectible and Antique Chair Gallery (also known as the Museum of Miniature Chairs) solo from the one-story, three-room house, which showcases her Guinness World Record–holding collection of over 3,000 miniature chairs. Hartsfield loves functional tiny chairs; her favorites in the collection can operate as teapots, lamps, clocks, or inkwells.

The craft is something Hartsfield acknowledges as niche and whimsical, but she finds that it soothes her and her visitors. “The museum started as a unique way of helping my mental health and my stress,” Hartsfield says. “When people walk in, they don’t expect much, but they tend to stay longer than they expect, just finding leisure in admiring something so small.”

Hartsfield’s day job as a psychiatric nurse at Grady Hospital, where she will celebrate 45 years this year, supports the museum. She was introduced to miniature chairs two decades ago through an activity for her patients, making tiny furniture with clothespins and glue. When she wrote an article for a nursing magazine on how to treat pregnant psychiatric patients, she decided to buy her first miniature chair, featuring a seated mother figurine, for inspiration.

Her collection exploded from there and became the ultimate weekend hobby for Hartsfield, who headed to department stores and antique shows to find miniature chairs. Her collection became too large for her own house, so she began looking for another that could serve as storage and exhibition space. She earned the world record in 2006 and opened the Collectible and Antique Chair Gallery a year later.

Hartsfield sees anywhere from 5 to 10 people when she’s open, on Fridays and Saturdays, from avid collectors like herself to people who have no idea what they’ve walked into. She gives the tour to each person who steps in, telling the story behind how she acquired certain chairs and the artisans who created them. “I suppose I do this for a legacy of my own, but I’m really just sharing what I enjoy with others,” Hartsfield says. “Thankfully for me, people have found it nice to come here too, and get lost in the chairs.”

This article appears in our March 2024 issue.