Great Expectations

Founder of black wax museum has her eye on a major expansion



From the slave-ship exhibit that evokes horror and fear to the serendipity of encountering cowboy Bill Pickett to the pride inherent in depictions of Thurgood Marshall, Colin Powell and astronaut Mae Jemison, the figures that make up the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum provide a visceral education in history.

Today, more than 140 figures depict Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and other fascinating people at this unique tourist destination in Baltimore.

But one day soon, museum founder Joanne Martin hopes to expand her collection and the North Avenue location -- a former firehouse -- to two city blocks, a project that is expected to cost $75 million.

Adding more figures is a continuing process, Martin says. Next year, figures related to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People will be added: Medgar Evers, the field secretary assassinated in 1963 in Mississippi; Myrlie Evers-Williams, his widow and first chairwoman of the NAACP national board; Gloster B. Current Sr., a longtime national leader who died in 1997; and Earl T. Shinhoster, the acting executive director and chief executive who died in 2000.

The debut is timed to the 100th anniversary of the Niagara Movement, a gathering of African-American activists who pursued full citizenship and challenged the philosophy of Booker T. Washington, who many considered then an "accommodator" of white America's paternalism. The movement set the stage for the NAACP's formation.

Other figures, such as James Varick, founder and first bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion denomination, and Mary Jane Talbot Jones, first president of the church's Women's Home and Overseas Missionary Society, a global lay evangelization group, will be added as well.

Martin and her late husband, Elmer, founded the collection when she was a professor at then-Coppin State College and he was a professor at Morgan State University. They first carted the figures around in a hatchback car before opening a storefront museum on Saratoga Street in 1983 and then moving to North Avenue in 1988. Renovations to the firehouse allowed the museum to grow, but the couple began acquiring other properties on the block in 1995.

The vision now is for the museum to stretch from North Bond Street to North Broadway on North Avenue. Two phases of construction will create a 120,000-square-foot museum by 2009. Seventy-eight properties have been acquired by the museum or the city for the project. Martin plans to add up to 200 figures to the museum's collection.

The scope of the exhibits will broaden drastically. Martin says, "We plan to tell over 100,000 years of history -- our focus is international in scope." Martin is reluctant to describe the exhibits in more detail until she's ready to announce the sponsors.

Part of the expansion plan calls for the museum to rent properties on the west side of Bond Street to tourism-related businesses.

The museum has garnered support and has commitments of $5 million in federal money, $3.5 million from the state, and $3 million from the city of Baltimore.

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