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Proposed Baltimore museum would focus on culture and history of African nations

Proposed Baltimore museum would focus on culture and history of African nations
A young girl plays the djembe at a workshop conducted by Esther Armstrong, who was inspired by that experience to start planning a new children's museum in Baltimore. (Sankofa Children's Museum of Africa) (HANDOUT)

A new museum aimed at educating local schoolchildren and members of the public about the culture and customs of African nations could open this summer in Park Heights.

Museum founder Esther Armstrong said Tuesday that Sankofa Children’s Museum of African Cultures will be a “hands on” institution aimed at children in the third, fourth and fifth grades who will dress up in native clothing, sample native foods and play native musical instruments while learning the histories of nations as different as Kenya, Zimbabwe and Ghana.

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“I came up with the idea for this museum in 2016,” said Armstrong, who has been operating her boutique, the Sankofa African & World Bazaar in Charles Village, since 1994.

“As customers have come in and out of the shop I've come to realize that there is a basic lack of knowledge about Africa. A lot of kids and even adults think that Africa is a country instead of a continent. You try to be respectful and correct them without making people feel bad.”

Three years ago, a customer asked for Armstrong’s help in putting together a series of workshops for Baltimore students in connection with Black History Month. About 150 youngsters attended events spread over five days in February, 2016 that included dressing up in traditional garb and storytelling sessions.

“The children were hungry for information and they were so joyful,” she said. “I told my husband, ‘We shouldn’t be doing this for just one week a year.”

Over the next 30 months, Armstrong and her husband, Jim Clemmer, organized a non-profit corporation. They assembled a board of directors and obtained $50,000 in start-up funds from a generous donor. They settled on an as-yet undisclosed location in the Park Heights neighborhood (the lease has not yet been signed) and began to plan programming.

Armstrong said that her museum’s mission complements and does not compete with the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture, which focuses exclusively on the lives of black people living in the Free State.

In contrast, Armstrong’s museum will confine itself to life in Africa. Half of her museum will explore the history of the continent as a whole, while the second half will examine one nation in depth on a rotating basis. She will start with her native Ghana, the country with which she is most familiar, and plans to eventually cover all 54. Armstrong hopes to enlist experts from the national embassies located in Washington.

“We will need their help representing their countries the way they want to be represented,” Armstrong said. “We’ll be visiting the embassies whether they’re ready for us or not.”

Armstrong hopes to open her new museum around Juneteenth Day, the holiday commemorating the ending of slavery in the U.S. around June 19, 1865.

In the beginning, at least, the museum will be staffed by volunteers. Preliminary plans call for it to be open 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays. Daytime hours will be reserved for school visits while the museum will be open to the public on weekdays after 4 p.m. and all day on Saturdays. Admission will be charged, though specific fees are still being determined.

“There’s an identity crisis in Baltimore,” Armstrong said.

“We are trying to plant seeds in the community so these children will know who they are. The stories they get from TV are not always positive. Who wants to identify with a culture of poverty and drug wars? We should give our children the rest of the story so they're not embarrassed to call themselves Africans.”

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