Anyone who visits the Sankofa Children’s Museum of African Cultures in Park Heights enters through the “door of return.” The phrase is in opposition to the millions of Africans who entered through the “doors of no return” when they were taken from the continent during the slave trade.
The museum’s greeting invites visitors to learn about African history and cultures or even discover their roots.
“We always feel like identity is very important to children thriving,” said Esther Armstrong, the co-founder and president of the museum, who is originally from Ghana. Many people also call her Mama Kiki.
The Sankofa Children’s Museum has been around for several years now, but they’d like more people to know who they are and what they do. They recently hosted a grand reopening to reintroduce themselves and reconnect with communities through artwork, storytelling, music, education and more.
The museum originally opened in February 2020, but they had to stop giving tours because of the pandemic. Armstrong said the museum tried to stay active by hosting virtual or small events.
Now that they are back open, Deborah Mason, the museum director, said during a guided tour that they start by asking children if they’d like to go to Africa. For those who don’t raise their hands, their hesitance is often informed by stereotypes, like the assumption that the entire continent is poverty-ridden, she said.
In the museum’s “Culturetorium,” visitors can put together a huge puzzle of Africa and its 54 countries with red, blue, yellow and green pieces. Children also enjoy picking Adinkra symbols, a language specific to the Ashanti people of Ghana, to press in ink and stamp on paper. The Sankofa bird, for example, symbolizes moving forward, but also remembering the past.
Armstrong believes it is important to create links and bridges between different cultures, especially with children, because they’ll be more open to understanding other people.
“If you have knowledge about other people, you might not be so quick to judge their hairstyle or the way they speak,” Armstrong said.
There’s also a portion of the tour dedicated to music. Mason said she plays the djembe, a drum made with animal hide with a hollowed-out bottom. In addition, kids can wear native clothing and sit in a throne from Cameroon with faces of its past royal occupants. It’s a time, Armstrong added, for children to feel like the “kings and queens that they are.”
The Great Hall displays much of the artwork and is broken down into the five African regions: Western, Northern, Eastern, Southern and Central.
Armstrong said her husband, Jim Clemmer, is the expert on the artwork, and he’s done extensive research on the pieces. They once had a store in Charles Village called Sankofa African and World Bazaar, but relocated it to the museum. Armstrong said traditional African art was portrayed as evil through her Christian faith growing up, so she steered away from it. She was so convinced by the negativity, she said, that when her mother asked her to go to the market, she’d go one mile out of her way so she wouldn’t have to pass a shrine in a certain community.
One piece Armstrong pointed out at the museum was an Ooni (king) of Ife, a Nigerian city. It’s a brass, stout replica of a king with a big belly, using a casting process that took a lot of skill, Armstrong said. The intricacy of much of the artwork, she added, makes it clear that Africans were self-sufficient and doing elaborate things before the Europeans came. Armstrong said they want visitors to find a sense of pride in their ancestry, especially since Baltimore is a majority African American city.
“You can’t be ashamed of being Black because Black people, starting with your ancestors, contributed a lot,” she said.
Haneef Hardy, founder of Unlimited Potential Mentoring Incorporated, said he didn’t know the museum existed, but is now eager to bring kids for a trip. His nonprofit aims to expose kids to opportunities outside of regular sports like basketball. The nonprofit does a lot of programming every month, he said, and they’re always looking for experiences with an educational component.
“We all know all our kids are diamonds, but right now they’re coals,” he said.
Armstrong said the cultural center, a nonprofit, needs funding to be able to take walk-ins like other museums. Right now, Armstrong, her husband, and Mason host tours and run the museum and gift shop most days. They also rely on volunteers. People who want to visit need to reserve tickets at least two days ahead of time to schedule a trip Wednesday through Sunday. Mason said it’s important that the museum gets the tools it needs to execute its mission to the fullest.
“We are still struggling, but we should not disappear. The job we do is vital to the African American community and other communities,” Mason said.