Troubled by a deficit, Great Blacks in Wax Museum fears for its future

September 06, 1994|By Norris P. West | Norris P. West,Sun Staff Writer

Elmer and Joanne Martin began their mission to keep black history alive by carting around four wax figures in their car. Thirteen years later, 117 figures line two floors of their Great Blacks in Wax Museum in a converted East Baltimore firehouse.

While their collection of wax figures has grown, one thing hasn't changed.

"We live right on the financial edge," Mrs. Martin laments. "An institution can't survive on that level. We can't live in the survival mode and be around 10 years from now."

The museum, which operates on a $300,000 annual budget, is running a $23,000 deficit, the Martins say. It was hurt by harsh weather last winter -- particularly in February, Black History Month -- that led to a substantial drop in visitors.

The Martins also are trying to recoup the $100,000 cost of a slave ship exhibit that depicts slaves -- some maimed, others deathly ill -- packed into a truncated replica of a vessel destined for the New World.

Meanwhile, competition looms. A state-financed black history museum is proposed for the eastern edge of the Inner Harbor, and the Martins are worried that the $15 million museum would take away potential patrons.

The Martins say the future of their museum, at 1603 E. North Ave., depends on financial aid from the city and foundations. They are looking for a steady source of funding to upgrade the exhibits and want the city to revitalize the surrounding community.

Additional money would enable Great Blacks in Wax to vault into the 21st century with animated wax figures and virtual-reality gadgetry that would let visitors relive historical events, the Martins say.

Visitors walking through the museum get a glimpse of black history starting with the kings of ancient African empires and continuing to contemporary times.

Among the better known figures are Harriet Tubman, the leader of the Underground Railroad; A. Philip Randolph, a labor leader and civil rights figure; jazz singer Billie Holiday; and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

The history of black America also is told using less familiar figures such as Henry "Box" Brown, who escaped from slavery by mailing himself to freedom. A wax figure of Brown is shown peeking from a replica of the wooden box that carried him north.

Mrs. Martin, a former administrator at Coppin State College, works full time at the museum. Her husband of 22 years is a professor in the department of social work and mental health at Morgan State University.

Mr. Martin, the museum's president, says Great Blacks in Wax has attracted thousands of tourists to the city as its reputation has spread across the country. Consequently, it is in the city's best interest to help the museum to survive, he says.

The couple maintain that the museum is not fully appreciated as a tourist attraction by the city or its private sector. The city recently forgave a $200,000 loan made to the museum to cover the cost of moving to the North Avenue location and renovating )) the old firehouse. But Mr. Martin says more help is needed.

"We've given the city tremendous publicity," he says, noting that last year, 40 percent of the museum's 62,000 visitors came from outside the Baltimore-Washington area.

Mr. Martin says he is determined to keep the museum in the black neighborhood because he believes it can anchor the area's revitalization. He is asking the city to develop a comprehensive plan to eliminate vacant buildings, giving some to the museum for expansion.

Daniel P. Henson III, the city's housing commissioner, says city officials share the Martins' goals of pumping new life into the neighborhood and helping the museum find space to grow. He says the museum is part of Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's goal to make Baltimore a center of black business and tourism.

In November, the city began distributing here and nationally a brochure listing the city's black attractions, including the museum.

"We're aggressively trying to give them help. We already have some money in this, and we're trying to work it out so that it can better exist," Mr. Henson says, referring to the $200,000 loan and a $100,000 grant from the city.

Discussions about the neighborhood and the museum are in an early stage, and no plan has been drafted, Mr. Henson says. He says the area could benefit if the city wins federal designation for an empowerment zone.

The museum has seven full-time employees, several part-time workers and 25 volunteers, Mrs. Martin says. Fund-raisers are held regularly, and the organization is selling $50 commemorative bricks to be placed outside the museum and $15 annual family memberships. Regular admission is $5.50 for adults, $3 for children ages 2 to 11, $3.50 for children ages 12 to 17 and $5 for senior citizens.

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