A new dream for Great Blacks in Wax

Grass-roots museum hopes to coexist with Harbor exhibits

August 26, 1999|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

When a visitor descends into the depths of the Great Blacks in Wax Museum to take a look at its exhibit on lynching, the first sound often is silence.

Then follow words like: "Oh, my God."

Here is the lynching of Hayes and Mary Turner, re-created with life-size figures and oversized horror. Billie Holiday sings "Strange Fruit," a song about lynching, softly in the background.

On a sweltering August day, in an East Baltimore neighborhood better known for decrepitude and drug-selling than tourism, a sea of children in the matching T-shirts of summer camp come from as far as New Jersey and New York to see searing images like these at Great Blacks in Wax.

Now, with a large new Maryland African-American History museum planned for the heart of Baltimore's tourist district, the founders of the first black wax museum in the country are wondering just what their future will hold.

The new museum -- with $15 million in state funds, 72,000 feet of planned space, a donated spot in the Inner Harbor East and powerful friends -- is scheduled to open in 2002.

With that arrival, Great Blacks founders Joanne M. and Elmer P. Martin will see whether there's a limit to their booming market -- a market that has not been challenged since 1983, when the Martins, professors at Coppin State and Morgan State universities, used the money they had saved for a down payment on a house to open a storefront museum with four wax figures.

Today, the Martins' museum has grown to 150 figures, telling the stories of civil rights pioneers such as Rosa Parks, writers like Zora Neale Hurston, and Mary Mahoney, the first professional black nurse. Its slave ship exhibit elicited what Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke calls the most emotional experience he has had in a museum.

As part of the lynching exhibit -- where only older children or those accompanied by adults can venture -- there's a make-believe crack alley, with skeletal figures sucking on bottles, pushing needles into their arms, lying face down in blood. A sign over the scene proclaims: "Now we lynch ourselves."

These days, grass-roots museums such as Great Blacks in Wax find themselves in competition not only with large, well-funded African-American history museums but with older museums that have started to diversify their exhibits.

"When we came on the scene, the big museums put very little emphasis on anything African-American," said Margaret Burroughs, who founded the DuSable Museum in her house on the South Side of Chicago in 1961. It has since moved to a building in a public park.

"They've started being much more conscious," Burroughs said. "I think that's good."

Carroll Hynson Jr., chairman of the Maryland Commission on African-American History and Culture, said there is room for both museums in Baltimore, as well as for the 11 other smaller African-American museums in Maryland. He said the new museum might display rotating exhibits from its brethren. "There's certainly room for coexistence," Hynson said.

Great Blacks wasn't always so popular. Shortly after it opened, when attendance was low and there were no more savings to tap, the Martins briefly pawned Joanne Martin's wedding ring to keep the museum's doors open.

Great Blacks has come a long way since then -- moving in 1989 to an old firehouse in the 1600 block of E. North Ave. More than 200,000 visitors came through the doors last year -- so many that children often line the length of the museum and spill into the lobby outside.

To accommodate the flood of people, the museum has its own expansion plans. It hopes to double the exhibit space and wax figures to take up 15 buildings, much of the rest of its block, which was purchased with city and state bond money. But the renovation would take $10 million. A larger expansion, including catering space and a restaurant, could cost $30 million.

The Martins say they are a long way even from their first goal.

"In terms of funding, there are some people who feel the African-American history museum is a priority, and that makes us not a priority," said Joanne Martin, Great Blacks' executive director. "Some feel there is this pot named `African-American cultural institutions,' and if you give $15 million to that pot, you've taken care of everything."

Great Blacks has received less than $2 million in city and state grants in its 16 years of existence, Elmer Martin said. Its annual operating budget is about $650,000.

"They're operating on a shoestring," said Robert C. Embry Jr., president of the nonprofit Abell Foundation, which gave the museum a $58,000 grant toward its expansion in 1995. "It's attracting people to an area of the city people don't ordinarily go to."

Despite its popularity, the museum finds itself in need of greater financial support. The Martins have repeatedly extended personal credit to the organization, according to forms filed with the Internal Revenue Service.

Joanne Martin said she has not kept track of the loans, but estimates that over the years they have amounted to $100,000 or more.

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