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Storytelling At The Griot Has A Personal Touch

At The Griot Museum of Black History, the storytelling doesn’t depend on a designated month. February is usually an important month for the organization, but the lessons are taught whenever a person or group comes in.

The little two-story brick museum in north St. Louis celebrates the accomplishments of African Americans and their connections to the region. It also presents how slaves were transported.

Unlike most museums, the exhibits don’t focus on rare objects or artifacts. Most are built around lifelike wax figures: historian Carter G. Woodson greets visitors in the front hallway; renowned entertainer Miles Davis leans casually against a wall and singer Josephine Baker smiles from a curtained stage; activist Percy Green stands before an image of the Gateway Arch.

Credit Mary Delach Leonard|St. Louis Public Radio and the Beacon
A wax figure of Carter G. Woodson, one of the first scholars of African-American history.

The vignettes are particularly captivating to schoolchildren, as on a recent afternoon when a bus full of students arrived from KIPP Inspire Academy. The museum came alive with excited voices as youngsters spilled through the rooms searching for answers to a history trivia quiz.

Jaryn Simms, 13, was wide-eyed, staring up at a scale model section of a slave ship – the type of vessel that used to transport enslaved Africans across the Atlantic Ocean to America. The scene triggered a memory for the eighth-grader who recalled his grandfather’s stories about his own family’s history.

“It's something we always read in our history books, and I never got a visual on it,’’ he said. “It really kind of describes everything we learn in our history text. It is disturbing -- how the people would take us from our homeland. But we were courageous to fight back and eventually get our rights.’’

Jaryn said he expected to learn about famous people at the museum, but he was surprised to find the realistic depictions.

The Griot is founder Lois Conley’s labor of love, though she says it’s a never-ending challenge to keep the doors open.

“We’re in our 17th year by the grace of God,” she said. “It still is a struggle and mostly because we don’t have major funders. So we just depend on the public, the community for support.’’

The museum has evolved since Conley opened it in 1997 as The Black World History Wax Museum. At the time, she recognized that starting a museum would be difficult, and she was looking for a distinctive approach.

“I knew there needed to be some kind of hook. It was a unique way -- a diversion from typical wax museums that were horror museums,’’ she said. “These were lifelike images of people. You got a presentation that inspired you to know a little more about that person’s story, that person’s life.’’

Conley sculpted most of the figures herself.

“I did them,’’ she said, smiling. “It was like I had to get this place open. I had taken a class in sculpture at the end of my master’s program -- not in preparation for this. But that was a skill set I had picked up.’’

The museum changed its name to The Griot in 2009 to better describe its mission. In some African cultures, the “griot,” (pronounced “gree-oh”) is a member of the community entrusted to collect, preserve and share stories and traditions for future generations.

“We haven’t abandoned the idea of the wax museum because when we do exhibits we often use wax figures -- mostly because people really relate to them,’’ Conley said. “We changed our name to reflect more accurately what we do. We are keepers of the history and the heritage, and it’s our job to pass that on. That’s what The Griot does.”

The emphasis is on the stories, not about objects displayed in glass cases.

“It’s nice to have artifacts,’’ she said. “But our interpretation is not driven by objects. It’s driven by stories.’’

As she looks forward to the museum’s 20th anniversary, Conley says she is still making do as she always has. She researches and designs the exhibits and runs the museum with the help of one paid staff person and many dedicated volunteers.

Credit Mary Delach Leonard | St. Louis Public Radio and The Beacon
Lois Conley volunteers her time as museum director.

Conley, who volunteers her own time as director, says the museum derives most of its income from paid admissions and loyal subscribers who buy annual memberships.

The Great Recession took a toll because area schools cut back on field trips, she said. The museum used to draw about 15,000 visitors a year, but it’s now about half that. The majority of visitors are still school groups; the second largest category includes visitors who are in town for family reunions and travel clubs.

The major expenses are utilities and maintenance because the museum owns its building, a  former Catholic school built in 1916.

“If we can keep on the lights and the gas, we can keep the doors open,’’ Conley said. “That’s why I’m a volunteer and committed to seeing the project through and keeping it alive.’’

Conley said The Griot is unlike any other museum in the city.

“It’s an opportunity to learn something that maybe you didn’t know before, and it’s an opportunity to begin to think a little bit differently about something that you thought you already knew,’’ she said.

She takes pride in the reaction of visitors who leave the museum with a better understanding of how African Americans contributed to the nation’s history.

“There’s something about seeing those youngsters or adults come in and the light goes on. Or they ask questions. Or they talk about how glad they are they came,’’ she said.

Freedom: A History of Us

What: The Griot is hosting a traveling exhibit from the Gilda Lehrman Institute of American History that celebrates the men and women who helped forge the United States.

Where: The Griot Museum of Black History, 2505 St. Louis Ave.

When: The traveling exhibit runs through March 19. Regular museum hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday.

Admission: The traveling exhibit is included with regular museum admission. Adults, $7.50; children under 12, $3.75.

Information: 314-241-7057 or the Griot's website.

Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.