Across America, The National Great Blacks in Wax Museum is known for highlighting unvarnished accounts of African American History from 2700 BCE to the present-day through life-size wax figures. In 1983, Dr. Joanne Martin and her late husband Dr. Elmer Martin established the museum as an institution where Black people can learn about their heritage in the historic Black community of East Baltimore. Some wax figures symbolize everyday African and Black Americans, while others represent historical figures like Pharaoh Imhotep of Ancient Egypt, former slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass, and civil rights activist Rosa Parks. In Dr. Martin’s museum, visitors get docent-led tours where impromptu discussions on “difficult history” occur with children and teens near exhibits on the Middle Passage slave ship, slavery, and lynching. As the museum’s curator, Dr. Martin has a dual role. She is often a “hidden figure” who oversees museum operations, but also has an enormous impact on the historic Black neighborhood she serves through her institution’s sponsorship of student internships and community events. Her career in Public History for over forty years is a testament to how museums are not only sites of learning but also communal uplift.
Before the Great Blacks in Wax Museum opened on North Avenue, the Martins began exhibiting approximately four wax figures of famous Black people in “alternative spaces” like malls, schools, and churches as early as 1980. By 1983, they were able to purchase an old firehouse to display their growing exhibits. Since 1985, The Martins expanded their museum space to 30,000 square feet and have acquired over 100 wax figures with the help of friends, family, and grants and loans from the City of Baltimore. Ten years ago, when I interviewed Dr. Martin about her career as a curator, she explained how other institutions like the Forest Lawn Cemetery in Los Angeles, California, inspired her approach of using alternative spaces to recreate historic scenery while her wax figures are showcased in the forefront. Since Dr. Martin’s background is in Education, she views herself as an educator first and a public historian second. She believes Public History must “meet the needs of the diverse and varying interests, learning styles, and backgrounds” of the people who visit her museum. When Dr. Martin described herself in the role of public historian to me, I gathered that she believes public historians are public servants of the community. Public historians should not pressure visitors to accept their historical views, but they should relay accurate and uncensored historical accounts with creative and engaging presentations.
Dr. Martin’s engagement with scholarship on Early American History can be found in her exhibits on the Middle Passage and slavery, while the Colonial era featuring Crispus Attucks during the Boston Massacre. Scenes centering Nat Turner and Harriet Tubman allude to themes of abolition during the Civil War era. In exhibits such as these, the museum’s goal is to inspire its visitors to expand their historical knowledge through individual study. The exhibits contain limited text to allow visitors to develop their own interpretations, but they do not shield museum attendees from violent recreations of enslavement, lynching, and gun violence. In public historian Ed Chappell’s 1989 article on Colonial Williamsburg, “Social Responsibility and the American History Museum,” he argued that museums must display controversial history in their exhibits and should never “gloss over the fundamental differences that divide us.” According to Dr. Martin, she has never ceased to display controversial exhibits that may offend someone based on their race. The museum has three exhibits that are often considered controversial to some of her visitors: the Middle Passage slave ship exhibit, the lynching exhibit, and the 1960s white and colored water fountain exhibit. Controversial exhibits are not an issue because as Dr. Martin explained, she is willing to risk offending visitors and endure calls to shut down her museum or bad publicity from news media. What is most important is that visitors receive accurate historical narratives no matter how much racial discomfort and guilt they may cause.
Since the Great Blacks in Wax Museum is an institution premised on highlighting prominent African Americans in history, the exhibits are in part “sacred spaces” that honor one’s ancestors, a position that counters the argument public historian Michael Wallace made in his 1995 article, “Disney’s America.” Dr. Martin believes museums like hers must “swim against the tide” in order to “honor the triumphs and sacrifices” of individuals like Madame C.J. Walker, Matthew Henson, and Jackie Robinson, who paved the way for future generations of African Americans to succeed in America. One exhibit that demonstrates her well-argued defense of graphic history is the Middle Passage and slavery exhibits that show Africans and African Americans being tightly-packed on a slave ship, force-fed food, branded, and tortured by slave masters. By showing difficult history like this without “sanitizing” the scenes to comfort visitors, Dr. Martin is designating these specific exhibits as memorials to the victims of slavery. By doing this, she not only goes against academics who disapprove of “sacred spaces,” but also responds to them by implicitly stating that honoring one’s ancestors is necessary when the museum’s central theme is the progression of African American history over generations.
Although most exhibits in Dr. Martin’s museum focus on famous Black people throughout history like Toussaint L’Ouverture, Myrlie Evers-Williams, and Dorothy Height, cultivating symbols of heroism is not the goal of this museum. Public historian Tiya Miles hinted in her 2011 article, “Showplace of the Cherokee Nation:” Race and the Making of a Southern House Museum,” that altering the true history of a historical figure to create the curator’s desired representation of the individual violates the rule that public historians must relay accurate historical accounts for their visitors. Similarly, Dr. Martin stated that in her museum, the wax exhibits of historical figures like Shirley Chisolm, A. Philip Randolph, and Barack Obama give an accurate account of the individual being portrayed and she does not withhold or embellish facts in order to defame or make a hero of a historical figure. Dr. Martin also stated that although she does not dwell on negative facts in the display’s description, she will discuss the imperfections of a historical figure if a visitor asks her because she does not want to defame anyone for a flaw she as a public historian has no right to judge.
Dr. Martin encourages others to follow her career path as long as they are devoted to creating exhibits that meet the expectations of visitors along with serving their community. One of the challenges Dr. Martin acknowledged as part of her job is how to handle emotionally-driven questions about “difficult history” from children. For example, Dr. Martin stated that once a young white girl viewed the slave ship exhibit and to Dr. Martin’s surprise, the girl did not cry about the graphic content, but innocently asked how one group of people could be so mean to another group of individuals. Dr. Martin initially feared the child would complain about the exhibit to her parents who would in turn demand it be shut down, but she found a way to answer the child’s question without any negative consequences.
As a museum curator, Dr. Martin has many opportunities to reach out to the youth in her community. In addition to hosting community events at the museum like choir concerts, street fairs, book signings, and theatrical plays, Dr. Martin’s museum also provides teens with the opportunity to do internships and become junior docents who hold tours for visitors of all ages. Dr. Martin believes that some museums should intentionally attract youth from troubled neighborhoods or certain ethnic backgrounds so that the museum can become the backbone of a community that is experiencing issues like urban decline. I asked Dr. Martin if she believes that some ethno-historical museums should target certain demographic groups in order to uplift the struggling community they live in, but Dr. Martin stated that her goal is to attract visitors from all ethnic backgrounds and educate them about African American history. Even though Dr. Martin gave me a great response, I wanted her to explain why she and her husband opted to put their museum in a working class, residential African American neighborhood, instead of a popular tourist area in Baltimore. I knew that Dr. Martin was being modest about her personal desires to educate African American children about their history. Overall, from this interview I learned that Dr. Martin is an excellent example of what all museum curators should be: honest, responsible for the historical information they display, open-minded to the expectations of their visitors, and motivated by the needs of their community.