The large L-shaped room looks like it contains all the objects it can hold.
Religious statues and a minister's plush chair stand along one wall. Priestly vestments hang from another wall. An old church organ sits in a corner.
There are paintings and murals, chalices and hymnals, posters, an usher's badge, a little brown chair from a Sunday school class. These these objects and others in a new exhibit, "Climbing Jacob's Ladder: The Rise of Black Churches in Eastern American Cities, 1740-1877," fairly fill the room at the Baltimore City Life Museums' Courtyard Exhibition Center, 800 E. Lombard St.
And yet, walking through the exhibit, project director Barry Kessler sighs and says, "We could have used twice the space, had twice as many objects and spent 20 times the money we spent, and we still wouldn't have told the entire history of the black churches."
But with some 100 pieces lent by local churches and by the Smithsonian Institution's Anacostia Museum, the show resonates with the grace and humanity of black Americans who combined African customs with those of the white Christian church to form a distinct and powerful way of worship.
The years in the exhibit's title were set by the Smithsonian, Kessler explains. The Washington museum chipped in five colorful banners bearing the titles of old spirituals and 16 large informational panels that cover various aspects of the black church's development.
Building on that base, the staff of the City Life Museums asked ministers and historians at 20 local black churches to contribute objects to the show.
The Baltimore material makes up about 80 percent of the exhibit, says Kessler. The local objects also bring the exhibit up to contemporary times.
"We wanted older people to be able to go through the show and see samples of their own history," Kessler says, referring to items from the past several decades. "This makes it a much richer exhibit."
The show is broken down into 10 themes. The project director says they suggested themselves as he sorted through the objects during the exhibit's planning stages. Among the themes are music, education, Sunday school, the pastor's wife and "Moving Uptown," which describes the black churches' northwesterly movement through the city.
Most mainstream denominations are represented in "Climbing Jacob's Ladder," including Roman Catholic, African Methodist Episcopal, Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian, United Church of Christ and Episcopal, along with Community and Holiness churches.
"Someone joked it's a miracle how we have all these different factions side by side in the same room," Kessler says.
"Climbing Jacob's Ladder" continues through Aug. 11. In conjunction with the exhibit, the City Life Museums will offer a concert, lectures, a video presentation and a workshop on how to preserve church records.