Entering the front room of Fort Wayne’s African/African-American Museum one sees a tall wooden sculpture of a Senufo bird set among a display of maps and drawings.
While the maps depict life of a slave traveling through the infamous Middle Passage — the way millions of people from Africa were forced to travel aboard ships en route to the New World as part of the Atlantic slave trade — the long-billed bird serves a different purpose, according museum Executive Director John Aden.
“Birds tend to live a long time in Africa," he said. “They are thought to have perspective and wisdom, which were attributes tribal elders strove to pass on to younger members.”
Wisdom is what Aden strives for as he directs the museum’s future. Just a year into his position, he has made significant strides, including moving past a bitter struggle between the museum's founder and board of directors and completing renovations of the 20-room building downtown at 436 E. Douglas Ave. Constructed about 1890 as a home, the building has been re-wired and received updates to some structural elements.
But Aden knows it is intriguing displays that the public will be attracted to, and he has taken steps to implement several projects to stimulate greater interest. Past the Middle Passage room, he has positioned the African-American Rare Coins and Stamps Exhibit, which is on loan by Fort Wayne resident Ben Clark until the end of August.
In the 1970s Clark, who worked for the U.S. Postal Service, noticed a large variety of ethnic stamps attached to envelopes as they were canceled through the delivery process. Clark was intrigued and began collecting stamps, especially those with African-American historical figures printed on them. Today, Clark’s collection numbers in the thousands of stamps.
He has loaned 1,000 stamps to the museum for the exhibit, as well as coins and other monies he has collected from as far back as what the Confederacy used during America's Civil War in the 1860s.
In the Pre-colonial African Arts room, Aden has created displays of African tribal masks and other sculptures. This, according to Aden, is the largest public collection of African art in Fort Wayne.
“Many of the items have been donated from Nigerian chiefs and former missionaries to Africa," he said.
The upper level of the building contains displays about Fort Wayne’s African-American history since 1809, local sports figures Rod Woodson and Johnny Bright, and local involvement in the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
The collections are all part of the museum's effort to educate people about the influence of African-American culture on society.
Aden is not waiting for visitors to come to the museum, however. He believes in getting involved with local events to heighten interest. For example, the museum plans, if the weather cooperates, to display part of its collection at the Harambee Festival being held 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Saturday at Weisser Park, 802 Eckart St.
Aden, who has a doctorate in history and has studied in Africa, believes in the power of education. So he also plans to seek out youngsters, possibly as early as this fall, by creating a museum on wheels.
“I want to take parts of our collection to schools to show students the types of items that have been created and used by African-American people living in different parts of the world," he said.
In summer 2015, Aden hopes to strengthen student interest in the museum by establishing African-American summer camps for students in the areas of visual arts, gardening and aeronautics.
“We will study artists like Remare Bearden, the purple-hulled pea and its African origins and the role of the Tuskegee airmen and African-American aviation inventors," he said.
Aden also hopes to lead a seminar trip to Jamaica in July 2015.
“I hope to provide lessons on Atlantic world history with a focus on Afro-Caribbean and piracy in the Caribbean," he said. A visit to the Marcus Mosiah Garvey Multimedia Museum would be included in the visit. (Note: Garvey was an important leader of the Black African movement in Jamaica during the 1910s). Other possible subjects to be discussed could include marine biology.
As for the future, Aden visualizes adding on to the museum via purchase of the vacant lot next door.
“We’re at capacity now for our collection,” he explained.
All of these plans require financial backing, and Aden knows it will take more than paid visitor admissions to support his goals. He is hoping to make up some of the deficit by writing federal grants applications to strengthen the museum’s financial future. Some local organizations also have contributed to the museum’s finances.
“This is a nonprofit business, and we must navigate revenue streams with membership dues, grants and other donations if we want to survive," he said.