In the early 1970s, the Warren M. Robbins Library at the National Museum of African Art was looking for weekend guides. Doris Ligon, a then-40-something mother of adult children, was interested in bolstering her knowledge of the African continent, she applied for the job and earned it.
Ligon’s training required her to learn a great deal of information about Africa – not just about its art. It was a “marvelous experience,” she recalls. In 1979, Robbins gave his museum to the Smithsonian, and on October 8, 1980, when Ligon told her husband Lieutenant Colonel Claude M. Ligon that she was ready to start her own museum, the retired soldier – and retired public service commissioner – immediately called a lawyer, and were incorporated that same day. He was a doer, and supported her every move. There needed to be more than one place to share the truth about the continent and how its art affects the American experience. He said, “Sweets, one day we’ll have the first museum in Columbia.”
They had no money and no art. They had never even been to Africa nor did they have any friends there. What they did have, was the determination to dispel myths and educate anyone who would listen.
Today, Ligon is 83 years and thousands of miles worth of wisdom. She has spent every year of her life since the inception of the museum working toward its goals. “I want people to come in and love the art,” Ligon says, “I want them to understand the people and to create friendships. To better understand the traditional arts of Africa, and to broaden their horizons. If we don’t know about it, we are missing part of our education. We’re talking about the second-largest continent. A place full of diversity.”
Ligon says her museum, The African Art Museum of Maryland, was the first devoted to the traditional arts of Africa and started by African-American. She still studies, and says she can learn something every single day. And she can teach, too. Befuddled by how uncomfortable people can be when confronted with art that sometimes depicts the African body, she quips, “African art deserves better. People don’t understand it. People balk at the nudity, but nobody talks about putting a diaper on David. Look at Monet. We don’t cover up that bunch of women laying on couches. Our art is just as important.”
She’s amassed an impressive collection over the years. While storage (there are just 900 square feet in their current location) and liability concerns have stopped them from accepting loans, the museum houses two types of art: museum quality pieces and pieces that are explicitly identified to be touched and experienced in the hands on portion of tours.
The museum’s outreach includes talks at local elementary schools. She has gone into the schools to share with students, and teachers, what Africa is really like. In fact, she says, in 1983, Howard County’s School District altered their sixth- and third-grade curricula to include units about Africa.
Outreach also includes trips to the continent. “We start a year in advance of a trip with meetings – free and open to the public – to prepare people.” It’s not all jungles and danger, like some people have expected over the years, she explains; but, things will be different than they are here. “If where you’re going is just like home, you need to just stay home,” she opines.
Their group has been to Senegal, Gambia, the Ivory Coast, Ghana, Zimbabwe, and South Africa. Their first trip to South Africa was in 1997, shortly after the end of apartheid. There group of 31 was one of the first groups to visit Robin Island. Returning from the island, they were on the same ferry with a man who had been in same prison with Nelson Mandela and shared unforgettable stories with them.
The museum is approaching its fortieth year, and while that is a milestone to celebrate, there is a sobering reality they must contend with: being grossly underfunded. Ligon says, “We are all professional volunteers. We look like we have money, but we don’t have a lot, especially since my husband left here, but poor is a state of grace.”
Ligon is lively and bright and committed to the museum’s work, but understands the need for a succession plan. Regarding to whom the mantle will be passed, she replies, “I wish I knew. Right after my husband passed, we approached a college to which our family had connections, but no one can take it or has taken it. We just want an educational institution to take it to keep the doors open, and not become elitist." Ligon says, “Providing students an opportunity to work it and learn from it. I want to find someone soon.”
To help Ligon continue the work of the museum – taking people outside of their comfort zones and into another world, pushing aside myth and misinformation, and molding young minds – consider donating to the African Art Museum of Maryland online or by mail. Visit their page for more information: http://africanartmuseum.org/donate.html