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Baltimore's underappreciated cultural treasure [Editorial]

For more than three decades, the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum has been one of the underappreciated cultural gems of Baltimore. Located in an unprepossessing building on East North Avenue, the institution that calls itself "the museum with a message" attracts some 150,000 visitors a year from all over the world to marvel at its vividly rendered figures and detailed historical scenes. This week, museum officials announced plans for an ambitious, $75 million expansion of the facility at its present location, and we hope city leaders will do whatever they can to help support the effort and ensure the project's success.

For most people, the idea of a wax museum conjures up images of stiffly posed mannequins dressed in frilly period costumes whose frozen features and histrionic gestures barely resemble those of a real person. Such images may have a certain entertainment value, but too often they have almost nothing to say about the circumstances that made the personalities thus represented historically significant.

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That's not the case with the exhibits at the Great Blacks in Wax Museum, however. The museum's founders, Elmer Martin and his wife, Joanne, both professors at Morgan State University, had the foresight to avoid allowing their subjects to descend into mere kitsch. They wanted to display notable figures in African-American history in the context of their accomplishments by placing them amid vivid tableaux that allowed visitors to imaginatively and emotionally enter into the scenes they depicted.

Those scenes include a nearly full-scale model of a slave ship on which African captives were transported in chains from the continent to the New World during the harrowing "middle passage" across the Atlantic Ocean, and an uncannily life-like exhibit depicting the terrifying instruments of torture used to ensure the slaves' submission after they arrived on American shores. Another display about the wave of lynchings that swept across the post-Reconstruction South in the late 19th and early 20th centuries presents an almost unbearable vision of the barbarous cruelty and lawlessness that enforced blacks' second-class status in American society.

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The Martins' genius was to subordinate the usual explanatory text panels and museum labels to a direct, visceral experience of the historical conditions their exhibits describe. From the very first, they envisioned the museum not as an entertaining pastime but as a teaching tool to address today's most pressing concerns — the unequal justice meted out to blacks by the criminal justice system, the growing economic inequality along racial lines and the continuing problem of police violence and brutality against communities of color. Nor does the museum shy away from making moral comparisons between the events of America's past and their legacy in contemporary life.

The museum is currently located in a renovated firehouse at 1601 East North Ave. and employs seven full-time and four part-time staffers. In 2004, it was officially recognized by Congress as a national historical institution, making it eligible to receive federal funding. The proposed expansion would add a children's museum, garden, classrooms and event spaces in a sleek new state-of-the-art building between Bond Street and Broadway that would quadruple the size of its current footprint on the site. Museum officials hope to raise $8 million for the first stage of the project, planned for completion in 2018.

Museum director Joanne Martin says people ask her all the time why she insists on keeping the institution she founded with her late husband in 1983 in what is still a fragile neighborhood struggling to recover its footing. She replies that during its decades on North Avenue, the museum has been a catalyst for change in the area, especially for local young people, and that it could be even more so if the expansion spurs further economic development in the community. Over the years, neighbors who were once skeptical of the museum's purpose and value have become deeply protective of an institution they feel not only truthfully recounts the stories of their ancestors but honors their own experiences as well.

Crime in the form of burglaries and vandalism has decreased markedly in the years since the museum opened, Ms. Martin says, and its location outside the city's central business district hasn't deterred thousands of out-of-town visitors from seeing it as an attractive tourist destination. Last month, for example, the U.S. State Department sent to the museum a delegation of visiting officials from North Africa who later remarked on how moved they were by what they saw. That's the kind of publicity Baltimore needs more of, and city leaders should join the effort both to encourage development of a long-neglected area of the city and to honor the institution's mission to bring to life what is for too many a little known and less understood aspect of American history.

To respond to this editorial, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

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