Wax Ecstatic

Lois Conley's Black World History Wax Museum brings the African-American past vividly alive in the present

If you think wax museums are a thing of the past, or the stuff of campy Vincent Price movies, or just high kitsch -- like Madame Tussaud's London collection of paraffin politicians, princesses and "beautiful people" -- you haven't been paying attention lately: There's a wax revival going on, and it's about history, not kitsch.

In recent years, three wax museums devoted to African-American history have been established nationwide. Baltimore's Great Blacks in Wax Museum, which opened in 1985, remains the largest and most successful; the African-American Wax Museum of Harlem, opened in 1989 by an extremely colorful impresario named Raven Chanticleer, is struggling but surviving.

And then there's the Black World History Wax Museum in St. Louis. It opened in February 1997 at 2505 St. Louis Ave., in a gorgeous 1916 building that formerly housed a Catholic school. Although it may not be large in scale, the museum fills a huge gap in St. Louis' cultural landscape, becoming in its short lifetime one of the premier centers for the history and preservation of African-American history and culture in the region.

The museum is the brainchild of one woman, Lois Conley. Years ago, Conley saw the need for a museum in St. Louis devoted to black history. Seeing Baltimore's Great Blacks in Wax Museum convinced her it could be done. Conley sought out advice from Dr. Elmer P. Martin, founder of the Baltimore museum, then unleashed herself on the St. Louis scene, gathering support for her project wherever and however she could.

She gathered other things, too: heads, hands and bodies, rejects from other wax collections; and fragments of figures from flea markets. Conley has no particular training in the making of wax figures, but she nevertheless put many of the museum's pieces together herself.

Though currently the museum is limited to the first floor of the old schoolhouse (Conley is planning on expanding upward when funds allow), it contains a nice variety of exhibits. They are arranged roughly chronologically, beginning with an elaborate scale-model section of a slave ship. On its deck, an African man is locked in struggle with a white steward, while below, in the dark galley, figures of Africans are stuffed into airless, coffinlike spaces, where they will spend the duration of the journey.

Although many of the museum's wax figures are lifelike, none would fool the eye; in fact, a few are a little awkward, reminiscent of shop mannequins. But wax figures possess a powerful kind of realism that goes beyond visual detail. It's the realism of scale and situation -- viewers can see the bodies in the slave galley, sense the stifling claustrophobia and feel something of the cramped, deadly conditions of the Africans' journey across the ocean.

This is the real value of the wax figures -- their ability to create a presence. It makes the past palpable in a way that words simply can't. Of course these exhibits include photographs and text to fill in the historical detail, but it's the life-size wax figures that bring the history to life. As Conley observes, "Kids don't like to read in museums." But she has found that the wax figures generally spark enough curiosity in viewers to make them want to find out more -- and that's when they start reading the text.

Most of the wax exhibits are simpler than the slave ship, with figures commemorating blacks of world-history importance who also have a connection to St. Louis or the region. George Washington Carver stands amid his chemical and botanical samples, the picture of scientific concentration. Dred and Harriet Scott, dressed in period costume, look ready to face the judge to argue for their freedom. (Dred has a worn-out face and glassy, staring eyes; this may be a result of the slightly cruder quality of the figure, but it somehow works as a reminder of his personal struggle and sacrifice for the cause of freedom.)

Visitors may be familiar with Carver and the Scotts. But turn the corner, and you encounter figures of John Berry Meacham, Clara Brown, Hiram Young and others whose names you may not recognize at all. Curiosity compels you to read about them, and before you know it, you're learning history.

For Conley, that's the point of the museum. It's more than just a waxworks; it is a full-scale history museum with a wide array of artifacts. Artifacts like leg and neck restraints accompany the slave-ship exhibit, along with a map locating St. Louis' active slave traders in 1841. There are interactive games and a reconstruction of the crate that Henry "Box" Brown used to ship himself from Virginia north to freedom. One of the largest exhibits is a reconstructed slave cabin from the Wright-Smith Plantation in Jonesburg, Mo., built out of wood with pig's-hair-and-mud mortar.

If some of the exhibits have a makeshift look to them, it's probably because Conley's budget is low. Considering the museum's skeleton crew (besides Conley, there is one staff person, plus volunteers), it's amazing that it can offer the rich collection it does. There is certainly nothing makeshift about how this operation is run. The museum now owns its building outright, but Conley is waiting for more funds before expanding into the upper floors. She moves forward with sound business sense. "We'll never do anything we can't afford," Conley says. "We won't go into debt."

Still, expansion is taking place. In May, the museum will unveil a new figure of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., paid for through the "Fund-a-Figure" program. Conley would like to purchase more figures of important African-Americans with regional connections, such as Miles Davis. Unfortunately, wax figures aren't cheap: New ones can cost around $7,000 to commission, a colossal sum for a museum of this size.

But Conley is building her funding base. In addition to a small group of contributing members, the museum counts among its supporters the city's Community Development Agency, the Missouri Arts Council's Minority Arts Program and even PepsiCo. Conley is especially excited about support from the Missouri Humanities Council, which will help fund a new exhibit on the Underground Railroad.

And although most of the museum's regular visitors are school and church groups that come to see the wax exhibits, it is fast becoming a prime center for speakers and traveling exhibitions on African-American culture. Currently the special-exhibits gallery features Let Us March On! Selected Civil Rights Photographs of Ernest C. Withers 1955-1968 (on display through April 24). In connection with this exhibit, Norman Seay will speak at the museum on "The Civil Rights Movement in St. Louis" on April 11.

The Black World History Wax Museum is a goldmine of cultural history for St. Louis, a bright spot on the city's dwindling cultural landscape. If you find yourself ready to give up on this city, depressed at watching its history be reduced to rubble (like the Arena) or stand perpetually empty (like Kiel Opera House) -- or even if you just have a thing for wax museums -- pay it a visit. Either way, you won't be disappointed.

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