March 23, 2003

African Art Museum of Maryland

5430 Vantage Point Road, Columbia. Information: 410-730-7106, or

The African Art Museum of Maryland has grown from a small exhibit space at a Columbia elementary school classroom to a premier cultural facility with plans to open a branch in downtown Baltimore.

"Our aim is to broaden the horizons of the museum and reach many more people," said Doris Ligon, the museum's founder and director. The museum is dedicated to collecting, exhibiting and preserving the art of Africa. It offers exhibits, in-museum and outreach tours with video presentations in its African Experience Tour, lectures, films, tours to Africa, youth and adult workshops, academic courses, dance and music performances, visiting scholars and school and community outreach programs.

Items on exhibit include masks, sculptured figures, textiles, baskets, jewelry, household items and musical instruments. Some pieces are 400 years old, such as 202 weights made of bronze that were used to measure gold dust in Africa.

Ligon, who said she had wanted to open a museum for years, founded the museum in 1980 with her husband, Claude, in their Columbia family room. She had a master's degree in art history/museumology from Morgan State University and had volunteered for eight years at the Museum of African Art in Washington.

"We didn't have money, we didn't have a name, we didn't have a collection," Ligon said. "So we knew we couldn't be presumptuous and call ourselves yet, the Museum of African Art."

Ligon offered to take her displays to Howard County schools. She amassed exhibit pieces from items sent to her by a friend in Liberia, art sales and gifts donated by friends and local collectors.

"Our objective was to make a difference in the education system. I knew that if we did it in the right way, it would change the image of Africans to people who would listen. So we tried to talk about Africa to the level of their understanding, from students in elementary school to the college level."

Ligon was offered space by the Howard County Department of Education at Phelps Luck Elementary School in Columbia and a year later at Rockland Center for the Arts.

When the museum outgrew the space, it was granted approval in 1989 to use the unused top floor of Oakland, a historic manor house in Columbia's Town Center.

Plans call for the museum to branch out to Baltimore's Inner Harbor. It will open a gallery at the 1840s Plaza, which has several prominent historic structures in the center of Baltimore's Museum Row, when the new complex is renovated in two years.

Museum hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and from noon to 4 p.m. Sunday.

Howard County Center of African American Culture

5434 Vantage Point Road, Columbia. Information: 410-715- 1921.

With nearly 300 artifacts, Howard County Center of African American Culture in Columbia includes a museum exhibition of African-American history in Howard County and of the families who lived here.

The 26,000-square-foot facility also houses a cultural center and library highlighting the contributions of African-Americans in Maryland and elsewhere.

"And the collection is still growing," said Wylene Burch, the center's founder and director.

The museum is divided into several rooms to resemble an African-American home in Howard County from the 1850s to 1920s: parlor, kitchen, dining room and back porch. Each room is filled with furnishings and artifacts of that era, including an ironing board more than a century old; four butter churns; an armoire with a shawl and top hat that belonged to the Snowdens, who owned the African-American funeral parlor. The oldest piece is an 1850s wicker wheelchair.

The cultural center includes a collectibles room, a music room, sports and military room and gift shop.

The collectibles room includes memorabilia of African-Americans; African-American inventions and a stamp collection showcasing African-Americans; and an art gallery of about 50 prints and paintings. A music room features posters, instruments and recordings of spirituals and jazz.

The library has more than 4,000 books on or by African-Americans for children through adults.

Half of the collection belongs to Burch, who established the museum in 1987 from her Columbia basement.

She began collecting in 1963 while living on a military base in Berlin, where her husband was stationed.

"I saw there was a need for the history of Howard County when I moved here," Burch said. "I saw there wasn't a museum to preserve the history of African-American families of Howard County."

Burch began organizing the center with other local residents to exhibit the history of African-Americans at schools, community and senior centers and churches.

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