You are entering the continent of Africa: This is your ‘Door of Return.’” Unlike the “Door of No Return” that gave millions of Africans their last glimpse of their homeland, Sankofa Children’s Museum of African Cultures in Baltimore opens the door to a view of history that you will be glad to return to.
Husband-and-wife partners Jim Clemmer and Esther Armstrong sought to expand their success from selling tribal African artifacts, jewelry and clothing at the famed Sankofa African & World Bazaar in Charles Village to their newest venture at the museum, nestled in the Park Heights community.
“We want to raise awareness, provide knowledge and help children see themselves as more than what they see in their neighborhood,” says Armstrong, a native Ghanaian. Over their years as teachers turned business owners—and lovers of Africa and its rich history—Armstrong and Clemmer realized two things: Children lacked information about the continent of Africa and what information they did know was wrapped in misinformation. This inspiration served as the catalyst to teach children about the vast wealth and contributions of each one of the five regions of the continent.
Hands-on learning opportunities
Museums can often feel unrelatable for children because of the inability to interact with the content in a way that makes sense for them. At Sankofa Children’s Museum of African Cultures, both the owners and museum director Deborah Mason wanted to make sure the target audience had meaningful opportunities to engage with the museum’s content.
The full guided museum tour begins with children having the option to change into traditional cultural attire and take pictures as souvenirs while sitting on a beautifully adorned royal Bamileke throne from Cameroon. Following their royal immersion, groups venture to the Culturetorium where they will learn a geographical lesson by putting together a larger-than-life-size model of the continent in puzzle form. Not only does this experience highlight each region of Africa, but it also teaches the true size of each country and allows for dialogue about the differences of each area.
Visiting the museum during the opening weekend in 2020—a few weeks shy of the pandemic and the museum’s untimely shutdown)—Dr. Tammy Henderson, a lecturer at UMBC, had an opportunity to experience the museum with her elementary-age daughter. “(My daughter) enjoyed the interactive parts a lot. She made crafts, played instruments and put the puzzle together.” The craft allowed her daughter and other guests to learn about Adinkra symbols and create stamp art to take home.
Leaving the Culturetorium, children walk back through the lobby where they are immersed in a guided rhythmic music lesson with Mason using African instruments and a traditional drum called a djembe (pronounced JEM-bay).
Children learn how all forms of music come from the syncopated rhythms created in Africa, and they have a chance to create their own rhythms. Clemmer explained how Mason starts with “hand claps, and they’ll get into more sophisticated hand claps that lead to a syncopated polyrhythm …. They have fun.” After they learn the rhythm, Mason “will dance to show that it is actually music.”
You could imagine how much fun this is for children and parents alike. Who doesn’t like to move to music?
Education is at the helm
To round out the museum tour, children and families venture into The Great Hall where they stop at various sections to learn about each of the five regions of Africa beginning with the north, then south, followed by east and west, finally ending with Central Africa. In this open, bright space, children have an opportunity to see traditional artifacts that showcase everything from how food was prepared and what the houses looked like, to what hunters wore for protection and how water was transported during long trips.
A life-size replica of a hut commonly found in Burkina Faso offers an additional hands-on learning station. “We give them the history then bring it closer to modern day,” says Armstrong of the way in which children learn about key historical figures and facts.
To further the experiential learning component of the museum experience, children participate in a treasure hunt identifying artifacts in the Great Hall. Teams of two work to locate specific items, and upon hunting down these treasures, they read the description to their group. This activity puts children in the driver’s seat to learn, experience and retain meaningful facts about Africa.
Programming for the entire family
As the museum’s director, Mason says, “If adults know more about Africa, then they will be more interested in bringing their children (to the museum).” She, along with Clemmer and Armstrong, is committed to this goal. In addition to activities for children through the Culturetorium, arts and crafts, treasure hunt, storytelling and a Kwanzaa celebration, the museum offers adult programming such as jazz nights, complete with live music. Plans to begin a speaker’s bureau similar to the famed TED Talks are also in the works.
Upon reflecting on the museum’s impact and role in elevating African history through children, Armstrong says, “Africa is no longer a dark continent. It is out in the open, and Baltimore is the place to showcase it.”
Visiting the Sankofa Children’s Museum of African Cultures
4330 Pimlico Road, Baltimore
443-708-7046 | sankofakids.org
• Two-hour tours are available Wednesday through Sunday (check the website for specific times).
• Tickets are $12 per person; no cost for children younger than 1 year old.
• Purchase tickets through the website at sankofakids.org or call 443-708-7046. The museum can accommodate larger groups, including school group.
• Free on-street parking is available in the surrounding area and across the street in the parking lot of St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church.
• COVID-19 protocols: Masks are required for all museum guests. Groups are encouraged to stay together, and sanitizing stations are located throughout the museum.
• The bazaar and gallery are open Thursday through Friday from 1 to 5 p.m., and Saturday from noon to 6 p.m.