African Art Museum of Maryland moves to new home

African Art Museum of Maryland Director Doris Ligon says she has studied African Art for more than 38 years.
African Art Museum of Maryland Director Doris Ligon says she has studied African Art for more than 38 years. (Jed Kirschbaum, Baltimore Sun)

The walls are freshly painted.

New carpet was just installed.

The glass shelves have been filled with intricate sculptures and carvings.

After spending the past 22 years in Columbia, the African Art Museum of Maryland is settling into its new home in another part of Howard County.

The nonprofit museum moved this summer from the second floor of the Historic Oakland mansion to a new building in Maple Lawn, a planned community in Fulton.

Directors have the museum open five days a week while they put on the finishing touches, and they're planning an open house and anniversary celebration Oct. 2.

"This is a brand-new beginning for us," said museum director Doris Ligon, who co-founded the museum in 1980 with her husband, Claude, who died in 2005.

"I think it's the best exhibit space we've ever had," she said. "We're delighted to be here."

Organizers say the museum is one of only three in the United States devoted solely to collecting and exhibiting art from Africa, and the only one founded by African-Americans. Its collection includes masks, sculptures, textiles, jewelry, furniture and musical instruments.

The objects come from more than half of the continent's countries and include tiny "goldweights" used to measure gold dust; a chair from the dynasty of Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie; and ivory carvings that would be illegal to export today.

The Maple Lawn location is the museum's fifth home, after the Ligons' house, Phelps Luck Elementary School, the former Rockland Arts Center in Ellicott City and Historic Oakland. It is the first museum in Maple Lawn, a community off Route 216.

Directors began looking for a new location after they learned the rent would go up if they stayed at Oakland. They also wanted a setting accessible to people in wheelchairs.

After a lengthy search, they learned about Maple Lawn from the Rev. Stacey Wilson, a Methodist minister from Baltimore. The space they found is part of an $8.1 million mission center owned by the Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church, headquarters for 660 churches in Maryland, Washington and part of West Virginia.

The organization negotiated a three-year lease with the museum for a street-level spot next to the Cokesbury bookstore.

Ligon said it was a big decision to leave Columbia, where the museum has been based for all but four of its 31 years. She said she and her husband started in Columbia because they admired developer James Rouse's vision for creating a community that would welcome people of any race.

"I always give credit to Mr. Rouse, because he created an atmosphere where a museum like this could take seed and grow," she said. "He always told us he was proud that the first museum in Columbia was about Africa."

At the same time, she said, Maple Lawn was appealing for several reasons. The 900-square-foot exhibit space has high ceilings, convenient parking and plenty of natural light to show off the collection. The museum can also use the campus' meeting spaces, filming rooms and other facilities.

Jean Toomer, chair of the museum's board of trustees, noted that the relocated museum is just a short drive from Columbia and still centrally located between Baltimore and Washington. The new location also may expose the museum to people who might not have visited it in Columbia, including families new to the Fort Meade area as part of the federal base realignment and closure program, she said.

The Methodist center was also a good fit because the conference and its members have numerous projects in Africa, including a campaign to fight malaria across the continent and educational programs and medical clinics in Zimbabwe, Bishop John Schol said.

"We are a very diverse conference" in terms of culture and ethnicity, Schol said. "When we built here in Maple Lawn, we wanted to have ministry partners. When the African Art Museum approached us, we said this is exactly the kind of partner we want."

The museum has an outreach program that takes selected items from the collection to local schools, churches and businesses. It also leads trips to Africa.

For the past several weeks, Ligon and others have been preparing the space in Maple Lawn by moving in display cases, selecting objects to exhibit and creating labels. She said the collection has about 3,000 objects, and there is space to display about 400 at any given time.

Ligon said the museum initially will show a broad sampling of the museum's collection, including objects from collector Harold Courlander and a small, colorful tapestry created by a visiting weaver from Senegal. The most valuable objects are behind glass cases, but many are available to touch and hold.

In the future, Ligon said, she hopes to mount an exhibit exploring the relationship between Maryland and Liberia, a nation on Africa's west coast. She is also open to the idea of collaborating with other institutions.

Even without a sign over the door, the museum has started to receive walk-in visitors and groups by appointment. Throughout the year, it welcomes scholars doing research and groups from schools and churches.

State Del. Elizabeth Bobo, a former Howard County executive who now represents West Columbia, said she is grateful to the people who found and provided the new space.

"I'm sad that it is no longer in Town Center Columbia, because I thought it was a very appropriate place and in keeping with James Rouse's ideals," Bobo said. "But I'm glad they found another place, and I'm sure they will do very well there. I don't think the people in Howard County realize what an exquisite collection they have. We're lucky to have them."

Several recent visitors say they are happy the museum found a new home.

"Once you walk in, it's like being in Africa," said Barbara Speckman, a teacher who visited recently from St. Stephens Christian Academy in Essex. "It's wonderful."

Speckman said she accompanied two dozen summer school students, from grades one to five, and wants to go back in the coming school year with her second-grade students. She said the students especially liked the museum's hands-on nature — they could put on masks and play musical instruments.

"That's what makes it real, when you can touch something," she said. "It makes you really want to be there."


African Museum of Maryland

11711 E. Market Place, Fulton

Hours: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, one Sunday per month

Admission: Free

Information: 301-490-6070 or africanartmuseum.org

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