People, passions on exhibit Patrons and founders, scholars and ghosts. Baltimore museums come to life in the personalities on display

Exploring the future of our past

Baltimore Museums:inside and out

August 30, 1998|By HOLLY SELBY | HOLLY SELBY,SUN STAFF

A young docent finds confidence, and confusion, at the 0) Great Blacks in Wax Museum

He knows they are wax. Five days a week, he sees the figures standing motionless and eloquent. He knows they are wax. But the stories the figures tell are so powerful that sometimes their images follow him home, turning his dreams into nightmares.

William Redmond is 12 years old. Tuesdays through Thursdays for the past three summers, he has worked as a volunteer at the Great Blacks in Wax Museum interpreting exhibits, selling snowballs at the stand in front of the museum and working in the gift shop. About 14 other adolescents and teen-agers work here, as part of the museum's youth volunteer program.

William's uniform is oversized shorts, an enormous T-shirt that nearly covers his shorts, and white athletic shoes. He has a round face and a winning smile. This fall, he will be an eighth-grader at Cardinal Shehan Middle School. He can be found on the basketball court, he says, when he's not at the museum.

When William is sure that no museum visitors are watching, he perches carefully on the edge of a wooden display platform. In front of him, Rosa Parks is poised in the doorway of a Montgomery, Ala., bus. Her hands are cuffed, and a white policeman looms over her. Behind William, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. stands, gazing into the distance.

William knows they are wax. But in the cool darkness of the museum, the figures possess an eerie reality; their faces lifelike, their stillness unnerving. Here is Harriet Tubman helping an escaped slave head north to freedom. There is Langston Hughes sitting at his desk - is he writing a poem? Over there is a re-creation of a slave ship. Enter it and see slaves, some naked, some bound, some ill and dying, crowded onto narrow shelves that serve as bunks. Sometimes, this scene stuns visitors into silence. Sometimes they leave in a hurry, unable to face its message. Sometimes they cry.

When William began volunteering at Great Blacks in Wax, he was just a kid: a fifth-grader. And the figures scared him. He has since come to terms with them. He nods at the railing that separates wax people from human beings. "To me, they're friendly now. They stay on their side, and I stay on mine."

He has learned a lot here. He can address a large group of adults without qualms. He can rattle off historically significant dates. And he can regale you with tales about Frederick Douglass, or tell you who the first African-American astronaut was, or explain why he wants to emulate King. What he can't tell you - and what he figures he'll never really be able to tell you - is how someone could sell a man as a slave, or lynch him, or deny him the right to vote.

"Sometimes I don't get to sleep because I can't figure out how people can do that to another human being. That's what keeps me awake sometimes."

Knowing that he can help museum visitors learn about history keeps him coming back. "I can see it in their faces that they can understand what I am talking about. First they get angry because sometimes they don't want to hear about this. But they listen anyway."

Great Blacks in Wax Museum, 1601 E. North Ave.

Chet Haack is making alphabet soup.

Here is the recipe, which has been handed down from generation to generation:

Preheat forge to 800 or 900 degrees.

BInto heavy metal pot, toss letters made of lead, tin and antimony. Toss in an "H" or two, add a "T," an "L" or an "X," a scattering of "Ps" and "Qs."

Season with punctuation marks.

Simmer until well blended.

In the dim light of the blacksmith shop at Baltimore's Museum of Industry, chunks of coal glow orange-red in the belly of the forge.

Haack stirs his silvery, molten porridge. He wears overalls, jeans, solid work boots and a double layer of shirts, and uses a heavy iron ladle, of his own making, to skim off impurities as they rise to the liquid's surface, like fat floating in broth.

Around him, heavy wooden tables and workbenches are covered with neat rows of dark iron tools, some that once were used by Haack's great-grandfather and grandfather, some collected by the museum and some that were made by Haack. There are hammers, chisels, tongs. Tongs that are shaped according to their function: one to hold fast a round metal bar, one for a flat bar, one for a bolt.

Haack stokes the fire with a long poker. Attention to detail is

important when one is working with metal so hot it shines white, and he approaches blacksmithing as he approaches life: deliberately.

Today he is melting down letters used by the museum's printers on a Mergenthaler Linotype printing press, a machine invented at the turn of the century. The molten liquid will be poured into lead molds, in which the metal will seem to pulse with heat for a few seconds, then gradually cool and harden into long bars. The bars will be used by printers to form new letters.

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