With the recent openings of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., and the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center on the Eastern Shore, the contributions of black Americans are finally getting their own stars on the map. Add to this list Baltimore’s own 34-year-old Great Blacks in Wax Museum, North Avenue’s home to more than 100 wax figures. As the museum is in the midst of ambitious expansion plans, it’s the perfect time to catch up with president and CEO Joanne Martin, who co-founded the museum with her late husband, Elmer Martin.
Tell us about the expansion plans.
We’re talking about 120,000 square feet of new construction and then 43,000 square feet of rehabilitated space. We’ve already demolished close to 79 properties to make room. It will cost $76 million, but we’re doing it in phases. We need $25 million for Phase 1, and we’ve raised about $12 million of that so far. We’re looking at 2019 to have that phase completed. Then, when you drive past on North Avenue, you’ll see a block-long museum.
What will the new space allow you to do?
We’ll be able to tell over 250,000 years of history. We can better tell the comprehensive story of the African diaspora. I have worked closely with exhibit designers to lay out what that story will be in a very powerful way. It also means that we will have space for more extensive education programs.
And you remain committed to wax figures as a means of bringing history alive?
Wax museums are a powerful medium. I think particularly for
African-American history, because so much of our history—even today—is faceless. Certainly, when I was growing up in the segregated South, I had no idea what Booker T. Washington looked like. But it is an industry that’s always evolving and we have to evolve with it, so we’re looking at things like 3-D printing and animatronic figures.
What does the expansion and renovation mean for the neighborhood?
We moved into a fragile community and have fought to stay here. We’ve been ridiculed for this from people who say, ‘location, location, location,’ because you have to pass vacant buildings and blighted areas to get to the museum. My husband believed that the conventional wisdom in this nation is that you should hide your poverty areas, and once you succeed in hiding them, then you can succeed in neglecting them. He felt that some of our African-American institutions have to be willing to stay in our communities to make those communities stronger, and we recognized the importance of the museum as a source of empowerment. Most of our visitors come from out of state, and the first thing they ask after touring the museum is, ‘What else is there to do?’ Expansion will allow us to create a five-block heritage district where artists can sell their wares. We also want to be able to develop partnerships with restaurants and lodging. We want to create opportunities for people to earn a living based on the tourism that we have shown will come to our community.