In an interview with Vulture, actress Lupita Nyong’o described her visit to the Great Blacks in Wax Museum when preparing for her role in 12 Years a Slave. She said, “My friend had told me that it was worth it and that you could get a kind of three-dimensional experience of slavery.”
The Great Blacks in Wax Museum, located on North Avenue in Baltimore, houses the waxed forms of famous and celebrated African-American individuals and also documents the nation’s sordid history of slavery and discrimination. Founders Drs. Elmer and Joanne Martin started the museum in the early 1980’s after traveling to area schools with three wax figures in tow, putting a face and lifelike body to the name. By the end of the decade they acquired 10,000 square feet for the permanent museum. A visit is a great way to honor Black History Month this February.
Immediately walking into the museum you are confronted with a 500 pound bale of cotton, an amount some slaves were expected to pick daily, wrapped in plastic and burlap. Larger than most people, the bale is ominous and threatening, and presents an unimaginable burden to comprehend, especially in Louisiana heat. To me, the bale is the most powerful exhibit in the museum— though it is shoved into a corner. Without much fanfare, it is subtly commanding.
The lynching exhibit is assaulting. In a darkened basement, figures hang covered in blood behind glass. In addition to the graphic violence depicted in wax, there are actual photos from lynching parties. The photos show gatherings of unfazed whites, standing around a hanged or burned body. The white people well dressed, not to honor to dead, but to celebrate a gruesome death. In one picture, a little girl looks up at a hanged man, smiling with glee. The reality brought by the photos is sickening, so much that seeing the “life-like” models of lynchings is actually a relief.
As Nyong’o pointed out, this museum is an opportunity to experience African American history in three dimensions, especially slavery and its aftermath, but it also dedicates amble space to number of figures of success, of historical firsts, and black heroes. Daymond John, CEO and founder of FUBU is honored with a figure, and so are Thurgood Marshall, Dr. Ben Carson (political aspirations not mentioned), and President Obama.
For me, the most compelling figures at the Great Blacks in Wax Museum are the historical heroes, including Harriet Tubman pulling a slave through a stove into a secret alcove. Face wrinkled in determination, she gives the impression that staring at her too long might make her stare back and ask for help.
Since it is the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum, it seems that the institution could use some financial help in keeping current. There are plans for building renovation and expansion, and they could also use technological resources to improve their exhibits. The city of Baltimore and state of Maryland should provide financial support to this small and unique institution, especially because it has so much to offer the citizens of Baltimore and beyond.