07 August 2009

Necessary Stories

the Black World History Museum

Jaclyn Jones

In 1996, Lois Conley opened the Black World History Wax Museum in a renovated 1916 Catholic school building, in a predominantly African American neighbourhood on the north side of St. Louis, Missouri. More than a decade later, the museum is a significant institution in St. Louis’s cultural landscape. Nearly twenty life-sized wax figures of prominent African Americans, dressed in period clothing and surrounded by contextual material objects, form the basis of the exhibits, designed to introduce visitors to the contributions each individual made to American history and culture. The exhibits expose visitors to lesser-known aspects of common American histories as told from an African American perspective without succumbing to the pitfalls of American exceptionalism often encountered in American history exhibits accessible to children.

The museum’s four main rooms and single wide hallway contain wax figure displays and text panels arranged in roughly chronological order. Starting from a poignant exhibit about the trans-Atlantic slave trade, visitors move through the years to the final exhibit, which features the Reverend Earl Nance, one of St. Louis’s most well-known African American contemporary religious leaders. In between, visitors meet George Washington Carver, Dred Scott, Sojourner Truth, Madame C J Walker, Miles Davis, Josephine Baker, Clark Terry, Reverend Martin Luther King Jr and several others whose striking likenesses help tell their respective stories.

While much of the impact of the exhibits comes from their ability to place visitors within reaching distance of each memorable figure, the most moving exhibit does not highlight any one notable individual. Rather, the trans-Atlantic slave trade exhibit features a collection of anonymous brown bodies, barely clothed and chained in small stalls, surrounded by rats and filth. This is where visitors are instructed to begin their tour of the museum, by boarding a full-size portion of a model slave ship. On the top deck, netting surrounds the wax figure of a small black child trying in vain to climb up and off of the ship, and two wax models of a white man fending off a mutinous attack from a black man. In the holding area below, the life-sized wax models of African people lie, chained and crowded. Mirrors expand the scene infinitely in either direction, giving an appropriate impression of the size and depth of the original slave ships. A large mirror placed in front of the ship spans the entire width of the below-deck area, so that visitors who go below-deck see themselves amongst the captured Africans. Stepping onto the slave ship is a powerful experience, making it the most successful of many successful exhibits in this museum.

For its ability to connect with current African American fashion and culture, the exhibit that features Madame C J Walker is impressive and impactful. Walker was a tremendously successful St. Louis cosmetics entrepreneur who pioneered a national line of hair and makeup products made specifically for black women in the early part of the twentieth century. Through a large collection of African American hair care products and tools from the turn of the century through the 1970s, we learn about the strenuous efforts black women took to create ‘socially acceptable’ hairstyles, striving to achieve a standard of beauty dictated by a white-dominated beauty industry. Also displayed are a 1940s-era standing electric hair dryer and a list of African American superstitions about hair. As is the case for many exhibits in the museum, these items speak to a larger phenomenon than Walker herself and provide a trajectory into the present that may prove powerful for young African Americans today.

The very presence of the museum as a black-operated cultural institution in an economically-depressed neighbourhood performs important work as well. Before the museum opened, the building in which it is housed sat empty and deteriorating for nearly eight years. Today, as it was in 1996, it is surrounded by empty lots, vacant row houses and abandoned apartment buildings. Over the last five years however, signs of revitalisation have started to materialise and Conley is proud to have been one of the first individuals to bring a vibrant, stabilising element to the neighbourhood. With a low admission fee of $5, she ensures that working class and poor African American families, as well as young students, can visit the museum. For Conley, it has been important and meaningful that the museum become part of a community that is racially representative of the figures within its walls.

Nonetheless, a limited budget makes publicity and upkeep difficult; visitors cannot miss the poor physical condition of some of the wax figures inside. Although their presence reconstitutes the context of the surrounding artifacts, missing fingers and peeling facial hair damage their potential life-like aura. However, in spite of the damage, visitors of any demographic will leave the museum with an increased understanding of the many African American contributions to the wealth and growth of the United States, and adults in particular will recognize the singularity and importance of the museum’s mission. Hopefully, some will leave a donation on their way out the door.

Black World History Wax Museum
2505 St. Louis Avenue
Saint Louis, Missouri 63106

Jaclyn Jones. 'Necessary Stories' On Site review, no. 20 Winter 2008
©Jaclyn Jones and On Site review

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