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Museum Focuses On Bringing African History, Culture To Children

Esther Armstrong founded the Sankofa Children's Museum of African Cultures in Baltimore to explore African history and share their heritage.
Posted at 8:27 PM, Feb 18, 2022

Mapping out a strategy never seemed so literal, as a group of children work to put together a giant jigsaw puzzle of the continent of Africa.

"We at least need to know that there are 54 countries in Africa," said museum director Deborah Mason.

The students are on a class visit to a museum about African culture, one specifically geared toward kids.

"This, I think, is my calling," said Esther Armstrong, who founded of the Sankofa Children's Museum of African Cultures in Baltimore.

Armstrong emigrated to the U.S. from Ghana and opened an African gift shop. However, she was surprised to learn how little most people she encountered knew about the African continent.

"Grown-ups don't know that Africa is a continent, not a country. We hear that all the time in the shop, just through the questions that people ask," she said, "but starting with the children, that's our future."

Armstrong, along with her husband, curator Jim Clemmer, opened the museum in February of 2020. Just a few weeks later, the pandemic upended life.

"It's been a real challenge since COVID showed up," Armstrong said.

Now, though, just in time for this year's Black History Month, the museum is fully reopened and greeting visitors.

"It was just a joy to watch these children," Armstrong said.

The museum shares with children history and culture they may not be familiar with.

"The whole thing is, in our mind, that you reach people when they're young and when they are more open to new ideas," curator Clemmer said.

Beyond what you would expect to find at a museum—exhibits, artworks, artifacts and a gift shop—much of what children get to do here is learning by doing and using their hands.

On this day, the visiting students used a number of instruments found in Africa, to create their own music.

"A lot of the countries, their music is percussion mainly, and that's an easy way to get through to children simply and quickly," said Deborah Mason, the museum's director. "But it also gives them an opportunity for hands-on experience and experiential learning is what is going to last for them."

They also do that by creating their own art, as they learn about African symbols. What they mean and how to apply it to their own lives.

"Each of them has their own meaning," said 11-year-old Ava Rose, who made a block print on paper of one of the symbols. "This one means a ram. I really like that because when I was little, I used to go to a school that represented rams."

For the students, it's a chance to learn about things they aren't always taught about in school.

"I really like it because there's a lot of interesting stuff to learn about in here," said 10-year-old Calen Broadnax.

It also provides a chance for some of the students to share their heritage with their classmates, in a way they may not have had a chance to do before.

"A lot of people say we need tolerance, but actually we need more than tolerance. We need to enjoy each other's company, know about each other," Mason said, "and when you know that about another person, it's more interesting than just knowing a name and they live down the street and that's who you play with."

It's a museum creating a way for children who play together to also learn together, about each other.

By Maya Rodriguez, Scripps National Desk.