DESPITE THE often-bittersweet history contained within its walls, the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture was a place of ringing laughter and conversation one recent busy Saturday.
In the boldly colored, light-filled atrium lobby, a family-reunion contingent chatted with relatives, tour groups commented on what they'd seen and people browsed in the gift shop for souvenirs.
Many of the visitors were children, including a group from Metropolitan United Methodist Church in Southern Maryland. They'd seen the artifacts in "A Slave Ship Speaks: The Wreck of the Henrietta Marie," stepped inside the tiny one-room schoolhouse with its spare interior and read about Matthew Henson, the African American Arctic explorer for whom their middle school in Bryans Road was named.
The children said they knew something about the history before they came, but they'd learned a lot, too.
"It's interesting to see how black people used to be treated differently," said Courtney Gutrick, 12.
"The way the schools were, the desks," added 15-year-old A.J. Smoot. Things are better now, they said.
"Now you can actually buy a house with five or six bedrooms instead of living in one room," said Dyrrick Strother, 14. "I think these days, the color of our skin is not important. You can pretty much achieve anything as long as you put your mind to it."
Visually, the Baltimore museum, which opened in June, is a feast of primary colors, with a rich "Red Wall of Freedom," a 96-foot-high curving wall that begins on the exterior and curves inside. It was designed to symbolize "the creativity, strong character and indomitable spirit of the Africans, and their descendants," according to museum press material. Terrazzo flooring in geometric shapes of black, white, red and yellow mimic the colors of the Maryland state flag.
In addition to exhibit space, the five-story, 82,000-square-foot structure includes a two-story theater, a resource center with an oral history recording studio, a distance-learning classroom and a cafe. The "Henrietta Marie" display on the second floor, profiling the history of a slave ship that sank in 1700 off Key West, Fla., after its crew sold 190 Africans in Jamaica, is a traveling exhibit in cooperation with the Key West-based Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Society; it ends in January.
Permanent exhibits on the third floor are divided into three themes: families and community, which deals with slavery and the strength of Maryland residents in overcoming their past; labor, which traces how slave labor was used in Maryland and how African Americans developed trades and skills to achieve success; and art and intellect, showcasing the talent of blacks in shaping the culture.
In the permanent exhibits, visitors learn about African American life through the years in Maryland, including the pioneering black-owned seafood businesses in Crisfield; the jumping music scene that showcased Billie Holliday, Cab Calloway, Chick Webb and others on Baltimore's Pennsylvania Avenue; and contributions to art, science, public service and other fields.
The interactive elements are key to children's enjoyment of the museum. In the "Henrietta Marie" segment, they can view a model of a ship's cabin, see and smell spices that were used in trading, and push buttons to light up interactive historical maps. Throughout the shipwreck exhibit are hinged copper plates at children's eye level, all marked with basic questions that children might ask. Open the knob on the plate and the answer is revealed.
In other hands-on activities, children can discover how much muscle was required for "tonging" the Chesapeake for oysters; use stamp pads to copy makers' marks for pewter vessels carried on the Henrietta Marie; listen to video presentations at several stops along the way, including a longer movie on Maryland black history; or try their hand at caulking a ship, as Frederick Douglass once did in Baltimore's shipyards.
"I tried all the hands-on stuff," said Tamir Johnson, 9, of Philadelphia. "I liked the part where you can smell the spices."
They can learn about "quilt codes," secret patterns sewn into quilts that were clues for slaves heading to freedom. One, the "North Star" pattern, was a signal to follow the star on clear nights. Also on display are vintage hair pomades, comb sanitizers and other hair-cutting implements associated with barbershops, called the "cornerstone" of African American communities. "After haircuts," the display notes, "local politics is often the second order of business."
Other areas highlight local lodges and societies, with ceremonial garb -- hats, long black waistcoats, and gold medallions and necklaces -- on view. Letters and signed uniforms from sports figures include a letter written by Sugar Ray Robinson.
Some of the sights can be sobering. In one part of the "Henrietta Marie" exhibit, life-size figures of slaves are shackled in the hold of the slave ship, with narration providing a somber counterpoint.
"It's a little emotional. I don't know how to explain it, but it's pretty powerful . . . the fake bodies," said David Hancock, 15, of Bloomfield, Conn., who was visiting with his family.
In the darkened space of one exhibit, a teenage girl caught a glimpse of a video recounting lynchings and recoiled, saying, "I can't watch this."
For children who have questions or concerns, volunteer docents are available throughout the museum. On that Saturday, the friendly guides anticipated children's questions, explaining in one case what sorts of food might have been on board the Henrietta Marie.
The museum offers programs that appeal to families. That Saturday, a group of about 40 listened to a talk by A. Jose Jones, a marine biologist who co-founded the National Association of Black Scuba Divers. Jones talked about leading an expedition to place an underwater memorial on the site of the Henrietta Marie.
In addition to the gift shop, which offers books, clothing, toys and music for kids, the museum has a cafe with traditional food such as crab soup, greens and fried chicken along with burgers, salads and other fare.
"So far, it's only anecdotal evidence, but kids seem excited to be here," said A.T. Stephens, the museum's director of education. "It's a very colorful place, with audiovisual components and large spaces to walk through." One "mini-theater" area features a video of students doing poetry and dance, he said. There is room for children to get up and join in.
The museum was named for the late Reginald F. Lewis, a native Marylander and the first African American to own a Fortune 500 corporation, TLC Beatrice International. In 2002, a foundation named for him gave the museum a $5 million endowment to support its educational programs.
REGINALD F. LEWIS MUSEUM OF MARYLAND AFRICAN AMERICAN HISTORY & CULTURE -- 830 E. Pratt St., Baltimore, 443-263-1800, www.africanamericanculture.org. Open Tuesday-Sunday 10 to 5. Adults $8, seniors and college students with ID $6, children 6 and younger free.