The Memory Vault
A peek inside a museum that time—and nearly everybody else—forgot
Published: April 18, 2012
If you’ve ever driven past “Baltimore’s Only Black American Museum,” you probably missed it. Located on a side street across from Clifton Park, in a white, vinyl-shingled rowhouse, it has only a faded sandwich board for a sign, much of it illegible. But the museum’s name and a few phrases are still visible, among them, Help promote good taste.
The museum has existed since 1968, at its current location since 1970. When it opened—35 years before the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture and more than a decade before the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum—its name didn’t have quite the hyperbolic ring it does today. To hear co-founder Berkeley Thompson tell it, the museum had its glory days, with thousands of visitors a year, including bus tours from as far away as Boston. Thompson himself curated a show at the Baltimore Museum of Art in 1972, and says his museum once received National Endowment for the Arts and Maryland Arts Council grants, hosting the likes of Nikki Giovanni and Alex Haley. “It was right after the riots [following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.], so everyone was ‘Rah-rah-rah, hooray for the cause!’” Thompson says. “Over the years it’s petered out.”
Yet four decades later, he remains the museum’s curator and sole employee. He estimates the museum now gets only about 100 visitors a year. On a recent weekday, he opened the door to the gallery he calls “Museum Hall” wearing work clothes: a stained blue turtleneck, tennis shoes, a khaki safari hat. An electrician stood on a ladder nearby working on the fluorescent lighting, his head poking through a gap in the corrugated fiberglass ceiling. A smoke alarm beeped periodically, and framed prints and paintings sat stacked against the walls. In 2005, an electrical fire damaged the building—actually two adjoining buildings—and destroyed a third of the art collection; Thompson says he is currently refurbishing the museum for its “grand reopening,” to take place May 25 from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. (He promises free lobster Newberg and shrimp cocktail.)
Thompson, 67, proceeds to deliver a detailed tour of the ramshackle three-story museum, pausing for passionate soliloquies on race, culture, and the role of art in society. “If you want to stop the problems that exist in my community and white communities all across this country, help them to embrace their culture,” he says. “A people without a culture is a people without a language.” Thompson’s own language is peppered with dated slang. ”Tough, ain’t it?” he says of artwork that he likes, and when one of the workmen calls out to him from another room, Thompson yells back that “everything is copacetic.” Thompson has the charm of a successful scam artist, and he knows it. “When I started this, my brother said ‘He ain’t nothin’ but a flim-flam man,’” Thompson says. “And I am, I’m a good con man. But I deliver.”
In the years leading up to the founding of the museum, Thompson flunked out of what was then Morgan State College and failed to get a post in the Peace Corps. So, he says, he went to San Francisco to check out the Black Panther Party and pen a book of poetry; he was there in 1968 when King was assassinated in Memphis. “Black people at the time, it was like we were deaf, blind, and dumb, because they’d killed King and we didn’t know what we were gonna do next,” Thompson says. “I thought if we could embrace our culture, we may find our way out of the wilderness. That’s how it started.” Thompson came back to Baltimore, and he and a group of black artists opened a museum on the fifth floor of the Riviera Apartments, overlooking the Druid Hill Park reservoir. In 1970, they moved to the current location.
Thompson points to a signed photo of Bill Cosby that hangs on one wall. “The guys who supported me in the beginning were usually black entertainers and petty gangsters,” he says. “The gangsters were definitely into their black culture. Who knew?” Thompson himself doesn’t have an entirely pristine record: He says he was locked up after transporting marijuana back from a 1970 trip to Botswana. But court documents indicate that his troubles over the years have primarily been financial. “We’re strapped every day, really,” he says. “I don’t know if we’re going to survive.”
At this point the museum—which no longer has nonprofit status—is entirely self-supported, a fact that Thompson takes pride in. He says he has a small membership that donates here and there, but the bulk of the funding comes from his constantly evolving hustles. Over the years he’s sold candy door-to-door, peddled commemorative stamps celebrating former Mayor Kurt Schmoke, designed and sold African-American-themed Christmas cards, and raffled off a 1985 Chevrolet Chevette (when it was new) to pay the bills, among many other fundraising efforts. He’s currently selling stock in the museum at 50 cents a share. But most of his day is spent hosting “picture parties.” He visits barbershops and beauty parlors throughout the region and hawks what he calls “commercial art”—sleek, generic prints that tend to depict religious scenes, naked ladies, and celebrities such as Barack and Michelle Obama. “A lot of people think I’m undignified,” Thompson says. “But, you know, if you love something your passion drives you.”
The walls of the museum are a mix of this gaudy commercial art, which Thompson says he sells just to get by, and the museum’s permanent collection, an astounding mix of masks and sculptures from Africa and Papua New Guinea, posters, photographs, newspaper clippings, ceramics, old fliers, photos, and a good deal of “outsider art” made by people Thompson himself discovered. He takes a small painting down from the wall. “I met this junkie about 20 years ago,” he says. “I was on the street and she asked me for a dollar. I said, ‘You need to get a job!’ and she said, ‘Will you give me one?’ I gave her my card and sure enough she came by.” Thompson ended up buying two pieces of art from the woman. The piece in his hands—titled “A Hot Summer Day: braidin’, sippin’, chillin’,” by Steffanie Jackson—is a charming, colorful piece featuring abstracted rowhouses with papier-mâché figures projecting out from two-dimensional stoops. A woman braids a girl’s hair, another washes the steps. “Isn’t this beautiful?” Thompson says, hanging it reverently back on the wall.
The museum’s collection also includes a few works by artists with some standing in Baltimore, including several paintings by Ralph McGuire, who had a one-man show at the BMA in the late 1940s, and ceramics by Carlton Leverette, an art professor at Baltimore City Community College. But Thompson gives equal weight to most everything that hangs on the walls. On the second floor he shows visitors to a room with a dusty bar, old theater seats, and yellowing fliers for late-19th-century minstrel shows adorning the wall. Off this room lies the “Cyberspace Theater,” an alcove lined with shiny silver foil and draped with Christmas lights. “People go in there and read and give speeches,” Thompson says. He contends that former mayors William Donald Schaefer and Kurt Schmoke both once spoke in the theater.
The top floor of the museum is dustiest of all, with a ceiling that bows precariously in places. Thompson putters about, opening an antique icebox to reveal a large pile of photo negatives from a trip to Africa 40 years ago. “I’ve never even printed them,” he says. “I haven’t had the time.” A pile of documents covers a nearby table. Thompson pulls out a Baltimore Sun clipping from April 1969. “Black Art for the World to Understand—‘Heritage’ of Negroes Promoted in Exhibit by New Artists Association,” reads the headline. “Back then we were Negroes,” Thompson says. A pamphlet from A Classic Black Experience: Sqft Power, the show he curated at the BMA, lies underneath. (The “q” in “soft” stood for “quality,” Thompson notes.)
A cot and sleeping bag occupy the last room of the museum, along with an old melodeon, a wood carving from Timbuktu, several prints from China and Egypt, a stylized portrait in ballpoint pen by Baltimore artist Donald Gwynn—“Tough, ain’t it?” Thompson says, shaking his head—and a beautiful carved wooden head that Thompson brought back from Kenya. This room also houses Thompson’s favorite piece of art in the collection. It is titled “The Forgotten Room,” and Thompson doesn’t know who painted it or remember where he got it. “It sort of speaks to me in terms of decrepit. I feel culture is decrepit because people don’t embrace it,” he says, straightening the painting on the brick chimney from which it hangs. “I love it.” In the painting, a chair, a wood stove, and a sink, all draped with cobwebs, occupy an empty room.
Baltimore’s Only Black American Museum is located at 1769 Carswell St. For more information, call (410) 243-9600.
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