Museum should be true to historyRecent articles in The Sun...


August 14, 1999

Museum should be true to history

Recent articles in The Sun have highlighted the controversy surrounding the design of the Maryland Museum of African-American History and Culture that was recently presented to the Baltimore City Design Advisory Panel ("On museum front, form vs. function," July 28 and "A first choice that's second best," Aug. 1).

Most of the panel's criticisms were right on target. The aesthetics of the building presented fell far short of expectations.

But the architects for the project are in a difficult position. They must respond to officials who hold opposite positions on the building's design.

Some of them do not feel it is important, relevant or necessary for a museum focusing on African-American history and culture to include any reference to Africa.

Yet the history of African-Americans did not begin in America, but in Africa.

Before the Atlantic holocaust, African societies enjoyed a long continuous history.

The Africans who were brought here and ripped from their place in that history and forced to abandon much of their culture.

Despite heroic efforts, a precious piece of this heritage was lost with each generation.

We have replaced this emptiness with cultural elements from our new home, the United States, and combined them with pieces of our heritage that survived.

So today we have evolved into a unique people, African Americans. We are a branch apart from our distant cousins in Africa, but descendants of the same ancestors and heirs to the same culture.

The establishment of a Maryland museum to showcase the history and culture of its African-American citizens is long overdue.

Historic and institutionalized discrimination have caused much of our story to be hidden from the general population as well as African Americans themselves.

The exhibits and programs of the new museum will undoubtedly provide visitors with a more complete story. However, the building can do more than house exhibits.

It can be an integral part of the whole museum experience, just as enlightening as exposure to our art, music, dance and literature. The architecture of the museum should be a proud expression of African-American culture.

Building abstract allusions to music, textiles or family is not needed.

The best source for inspiration for a culturally reflective building is other buildings. But herein lies the challenge.

African architecture goes way beyond the pyramids. The size, diversity and long history of habitation on the continent have resulted in a wide range of diverse architectural expressions. These expressions are unique to Africa and part of the lost heritage of African-Americans.

I believe that some people involved with the museum project are embarrassed to admit that they know nothing about African architecture and therefore dismiss any attempts to explore its exciting possibilities.

While many culturally expressive disciplines have been rediscovered and integrated back into the African American community, the world of African architecture has been completely ignored. It is one of the last culturally expressive disciplines to be restored to our lives.

As a result, the United States doesn't have a recognizable African-American architectural style. African-American architecture will result from an infusion of African architectural expressions into the architecture of America. We are only beginning to develop this aesthetic.

The Maryland Museum of African-American History and Culture has a unique opportunity to help define this aesthetic and add a new chapter to the history of African-Americans in Maryland.

Paul L. Taylor Jr., Baltimore

The writer is director of capital projects at Johns Hopkins University, assistant professor at the University of Maryland School of Architecture and president-elect of the National Organization of Minority Architects.

State lacks sound dredge plan . . .

As long as Baltimore's harbor is maintained as a deep-water port -- and provides jobs for Marylanders and revenue for the state -- while nature's currents stir, shift and redeposit the bay's sediments, dredging the harbor and its approach channels will be mandatory.

However, both the port of Baltimore and the Chesapeake Bay deserve better than the governor's "Strategic Plan for Dredge Material Disposal," which relies on outdated techniques.

The port deserves a politically stable, economically sound, long-term plan. The bay deserves a consistent state policy for improving water quality.

Both goals can be served if we look at clean dredge material as an asset rather than a liability. Dredged material can be used in many beneficial ways.

Beneficial ways to use dredged material include replenishing and restoring eroding wetlands; filling abandoned mines and quarries; mixing it with other ingredients to make various products (for example, mixing dredge with sand to make material used in roadbeds or housing foundations); or using it to manufacture bricks, roofing tiles or other construction products.

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