A sixth-grader looks up and considers the 10-foot-tall, woven basket-like object looming from the corner, its two curving points tied together at the top.
“This looks like a fort, like they threw spears through the opening,” he concludes.
“I think it’s a humongous purse,” adds a classmate.
Another student suggests it might be a boat.
Actually, it’s a 40-pound, woven-grass antelope mask, explains Doris Ligon, founder of the African Art Museum of Maryland, where these Glenelg Country School students have gathered to experience and learn about the unique pieces.
The person who donned the mask would spin around so fast, explains Ligon, that the grass tail attached to the top would stick straight out.
“He’s supposed to be an antelope,” she says. “He has to show skill and demonstrate speed.”
The kids are among thousands who have learned about Africa’s art and culture from Ligon, who envisioned and created the teaching museum more than 30 years ago.
“We have to learn about other people’s culture, learn why they do what they do, and then respect that,” Ligon says.
The desire to teach that message has carried Ligon and the Howard County museum through three decades of operating with scant funding, making serendipitous connections with art collectors, and sharing African traditions with Marylanders.
And the journey isn’t over yet.
The Making of a Museum
When Ligon and her late husband, Claude, started the operation in 1980, they had no museum-quality art, no money, and almost no art-world connections.
“But we knew if we created an opportunity, we could make a difference in the way that people perceive Africans and their art,” she says.
Morgan State University—where Claude was a professor of military science—was among the first object lenders.
Ligon credits Claude, who passed away several years ago, with helping her dream become reality.
“My children were grown, and I was footloose and fancy-free,” she remembers. A lifelong love of learning and studies in African art and sociology gave Ligon the tools for teaching.
“I knew I wanted a place where people could feel comfortable about walking into a museum,” she says. Claude had a lawyer incorporate it at their Columbia house, the museum’s first home. Its next home was in Historic Oakland, a restored 19th-century manor in Columbia.
Now, they’ve rented 900 square feet in Fulton in a building constructed and owned by the Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church.
Today, the museum is one of four in the U.S. dedicated exclusively to African art, and it is the only museum of its kind in the nation founded by African Americans.
The museum’s 3,000-piece collection includes the masks, textiles, sculptures, and instruments that you’d expect, but it’s also a celebration of culture, traditions, and customs. Each object—including traditional, antique, and contemporary works—reveals an insight into some aspect of African life.
Among the most treasured items in the collection is a prized set of 202 brass weights, used to measure gold dust, from the private collection of the late American novelist, folklorist, and anthropologist Harold Courlander.
Courlander was attending his daughter’s wedding downstairs at Historic Oakland when he discovered the museum upstairs.
“He was impressed and asked if we were part of the Smithsonian,” Ligon recalls.
He invited the Ligons to his Bethesda house to offer the museum a few pieces from his collection. Years later, in 1996, when Courlander passed away, his son offered the valuable brass weights to the museum.
The weights—many of them dating back four centuries—hail from West Africa and are the oldest items in the museum’s collection. Each intricately designed weight resembles an animal or traditional design.