Saturday, June 29, 2019

A visit to the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum

The second museum in Baltimore that I’d like to salute is a very sincere one that is, by turns, educational, entertaining, and inspirational. The National Great Blacks in Wax Museum (surely one of the best musuem names in the country), located at 1601-03 East North Avenue, has a website that can be found here.

Wax museums are usually fascinating time capsules of the period in which they were created. In the case of BiW, it is not an ordinary wax museum focused on the entertainment industry or mainstream historical figures. It presents instead a history of African-Americans from slavery to the civil rights movement, with sidebars on art, celebrity, entrepreneurship, and the even the Presidency.

On first entry, you see a series of tableaux about slavery. These scenes are disturbingly realistic and must be seen in person. One less disturbing but still fascinating tableau illustrates one way that slaves were helped to get onto “the underground railroad” – via stoves with fake backs that led into other areas. (A recorded narration emphasizes for those who are unaware that the underground railroad is only a phrase – these methods for slaves to escape involved neither a railway nor were they underground.)

African-American legends are depicted in the center of the main floor. Several icons and trailblazers from the worlds of literature and sports, among many other fields, are featured.

Figures of Joe Louis, Jackie Robinson, and Jesse Owens.

Figure of Bill Picket, the first great black rodeo star.
On the second floor one encounters more black game-changers. There are also menacing tableaux like this one.

Traditional wax museums set aside an area for “horror” exhibits. In the case of BiW, the horror is all too real, since the basement is devoted to the horror encountered by African-Americans. Thus, we see documents (news clippings, photos) concerning, and tableaux depicting, lynching, medical experiments involving black citizens, and the nightmare murder of Emmett Till.

I won’t show these images – adults need to see them in person (kids are not allowed in the basement exhibit) – but I can guarantee that anyone who thanks of wax museums as “hokey” or for entertainment purposes only will be extremely sobered by the basement in the BiW museum.

News clippings on the wall in the basement exhibit.

The final hallway contains important figures in Black history including, of course, civil rights icons. One person had seemed to be missing, though – but I should’ve known better. Dr. King is the final figure one sees as one leaves the museum, which provides a perfect counterbalance for the grim history recounted in the opening hall.

Figure of Malcolm X.

The National Great Blacks in Wax Museum is worth your time if you’re traveling to the Baltimore area. Check out the museum’s website.

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