Wax figures of Black soldiers. (Courtesy photo)
When you hear the phrase ‘wax figurines’, your mind probably jumps to either Madame Tussauds or The Great Blacks In Wax Museum right here in Baltimore. If you were born and raised here, chances are you have already been to it as a child. There’s also a chance that you too have probably been frightened to near tears by the jarring realness of the slave ship exhibit. Its okay if you have, because of the three times I’ve visited, I’ve only had to leave once due to uncontrollable tears.
The owner and co-founder, Joanne Martin, is used to that. She actually expects and doesn’t treat it as some weird uncomfortable thing. “When I have young people that come in and cry because of the slave ship, I’m not as upset as a parent might be,” she says. “That, for me, is part of what I want to happen. It means that we have some empathy and we won’t be so quick to kill one of our own”.
Recently, our city’s beloved museum has announced plans for a massive renovation and expansion. The expansion will take over the entire 1600 block of North Ave, stretching between Broadway and Bond Street with plans for a garden, a theater and educational programs.
In an exclusive interview with The Afro, we caught up with Martin for more details about this piece of Baltimore history.
The idea of expansion for Blacks in Wax was always in the works for Martin and her late husband, Dr. Elmer Martin, but did not officially get underway until his passing in 2001.
“One day, I found myself on a ship on the Nile river dealing with his sudden death. I made a vow to God and him that I would spend my life carrying out his dream,” she said. “When you walk around the museum, it’s like walking around the head of Elmer.”
Wax figure of Bessie Coleman. (Courtesy photo)
“My husband always said that we had to be a museum with a message, not just black figures standing around. They had to be a part of a bigger story,” she said.
Martin hopes that the expansion will not only fulfill her husband’s wishes, but bring some much needed tourism to the economically deprived area.
“I don’t think that we should think our neighborhoods aren’t worthwhile and that you have to leave them to find something good,” she said. “My husband and I wanted to show that tourism can thrive in that area. Visitors come from all over to this fragile community for the Blacks in Wax.”
So far, the expansion boasts ideas for a sculpture garden, an improvement upon their standing educational programs and even a small marketplace for budding entrepreneurs.The rear of the museum will house a beautiful entryway as well as a cultural and community hub for guests to experience.
“The rear of the museum will be a major entrance, so that area will be a garden space. Phase 1 of the idea of a sculpture garden is planting trees native to the city.”
The massive plans are an effort to shine a positive light back onto the city and help educate the youth.
“We are making it the education institution that it should be and expanding on programs that we have for children,” she said. “We are talking to other venues in Baltimore and showing them how to become a curator, designing your own studio and etc.”
“There will be film screenings and panel discussions afterwards,” she said. “We’re having a place for art exhibition, places to sell fashion designs and economic opportunity”.
Since the opening of the museum in 1983, its main mission has always involved what it can do for the community.
“We are trying in every way to be a force for change, create job opportunities and have a cultural hub on that block,” she said. “The 1500 block would be an Uhure Village, which is Swahili for ‘let us come together”.
It is not only a mission to Martin for the community to come together, but for the city itself to see the combined efforts of everyone to rebuild and take a step back. She feels that the city could ‘do better’ in terms of seeing the extended vision of this expansion.
“I’d like to see do better but I think we need to do a better job of helping them to see the vision,” she said. “I feel that maybe we have tried and missed the mark but we will try again.”
“We will sit down with them and talk about what this project means in terms of jobs, community building and tourism development.”
She feels that after that is done, there is ‘no reason’ that the Blacks in Wax and other museums should not ‘be funded to the level they feel they deserve’. As the museum continues to look to the local and state government for more federal dollars, they also appreciate the efforts of their everyday supporters and donors.
“The ways in which we have to come together to build the African American community and get back to that commitment of family is what we will try to do”.