About novels and plays within plays are...


March 18, 1991

BESIDES NOVELS about novels and plays within plays are museums about museums. The city's Peale Museum on Holliday Street, the nation's oldest in discontinuous operation, has a sparkling new exhibit about the birth of the museum in America that is largely its own history.

It contrasts markedly, in its republicanism, with a show of quite different museum origins, in the private cabinets of kings and dukes, that the Walters Art Gallery mounted some years ago.

The Peale, part of the City Life Museums, has joined the big leagues in one respect: You gain admittance through the gift shop. Admission for an adult shy of senior citizenship is $1.75, up from 25 cents in 1814.

That's when the painter-entrepreneur Rembrandt Peale opened the place, to show a mastodon and his own paintings and inaugurate gas lighting. Among his family's other innovations was the franchise chain. At one time its members operated museums in Philadelphia, Baltimore and New York.

This is a flaky, wonderful show of what a museum was like 150 and more years ago, down to dismal lighting and absence of labels and some original stuffed birds from the Philadelphia Peale. The splendid Peale painting of exhuming the mastodon is hidden in the shadows. A whole fake mastodon skeleton is on display along with a few bones from the real one installed in 1814. There's also a fake "Fiji Mermaid" that P. T. Barnum displayed (or is it real?!).

Museums were commercial then. They are moving full circle.

* * * *

IN A MOVING article in the February issue of Life magazine, Lee Atwater looked at his life and, by implication, all of our lives through the lens of a young man suffering an unexpected encounter with a painful, debilitating, fatal disease.

He just turned 40. He learned last year that he has a malignant brain tumor. He has had extreme treatments, yet remains uncured. Doctors cannot tell him if he has "three weeks, three months or three years" to live.

He has long been known for his abrasive, mean-spirited, win-at-any-cost philosophy of managing political campaigns. He apologizes for this in his Life article.

He says, "My illness helped me to see what was missing in society was what was missing in me: a little heart, a lot of brotherhood. The '80s were about acquiring -- acquiring wealth, power, prestige. I know. I acquired more wealth, power, prestige than most. But you can acquire all you want and still feel empty. . . It took a deadly illness to put me eye to eye with that truth, but it is a truth that the country, caught up in its ruthless ambitions and moral decay, can learn on my dime."

There is more heart and brotherhood in America than MrAtwater perhaps realizes, but there is always a need for more. May his eloquent testament produce more.

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