New director to get museum rolling

August 02, 1991|By Phyllis Brill | Phyllis Brill,Evening Sun Staff

John Ott's love of American history goes back to his days at St. Peter's Choir School for Boys in Philadelphia. There, he would ruminate on the lives of the Revolutionary War heroes buried just outside in the centuries-old Episcopal Church cemetery. Unlike some youngsters, Ott reveled in "being marched around to all the historic sites" of Philadelphia nearly every Sunday by the elders of the church.

Today, he often reflects on Baltimore's past, particularly the heydey of the railroads. Ott is the new executive director of the B&O Railroad Museum, which is said to house the most comprehensive collection of historic railroad equipment in the country. The museum is on the site of the B&O's Mount Clare repair shops at Pratt and Poppleton streets.

At the peak of railroading a century ago, 1,700 workers toiled on the site, Ott says with the excitement of a school boy with his first Lionel train.

"The B&O was one of the biggest employers in this city; there were so many people apprenticed in so many trades through the railroad. This is where the first Morse telegram was received and where Lincoln's train had to pass through heading back to Washington [for his funeral]. This is just such a historic site."

The 47-year-old former head of the Atlanta Historical Society took over in May as the B&O Museum's first executive director since its parent, CSX Corp., began proceedings in 1987 to turn it into a private, non-profit institution.

His job, he says, is to expand the somewhat undiscovered jewel into a "national prize among American urban museums." The B&O Museum attracts about 70,000 paying visitors a year.

"I think we ought to be able to do three times that," says Ott. "But you have to give people a sense that it's fun and that there's participation on their part.

"We need to translate the story of the railroads into something people can visualize. We need to see lights flash or signals go off, a sense of movement. We need the trains to operate on the site."

Ott would would like to see the museum offer excursion rides from the old shops - "even if only 3/4 mile out to the Carroll Mansion."

The B&O Museum was founded in 1953 and covers 11 acres today. It consists of four historic buildings, including an impressive, 22-side roundhouse built in 1883. There are 28 engines, dating from the 1830s, 120 railroad cars, 5,000 artifacts and a model train village.

"The B&O is really ready to take off as an independent museum," says Nancy Brennan, of the City Life Museums, which in 1989 assumed a two-year contract to manage the B&O Museum during its transition. She was on the search committee for a new director.

The job called for someone "with a commitment to community as well as a love for history and the educational role the museum can play."

Ott, she says, has a great track record as a "bridge builder" to neighborhoods, donors, city and state government and national corporations." As head of the Atlanta Historical Society for eight years, Ott led a $14-million fund-raising campaign for a new Museum of Atlanta History. The building was christened in March, just before he announced his leaving.

The Georgia Association of Museums and Galleries had named Ott 1991's Museum Professional of the Year, and job offers had come in for everything from running Atlanta's SciTrek science center to helping organize the Olympics, due in Atlanta in 1996.

"But I really am a history person," says the man whose distinguished gray hair and beard have inspired comparisons to Robert E. Lee by some Atlantans.

Ott and his family will be settling into a house in Ellicott City later this month. His wife, Lili, who sees in her husband a closer resemblance to singer Kenny Rogers than to the Confederate leader, is also a museum professional. She ran Atlanta Heritage Row for the last year and is now job-hunting in Baltimore and Washington.

"I fell in love with Ellicott City," says Ott of the historic mill town that was once the first major stop on the B&O after Baltimore. Their new house, "only 23 years old," was selected as a concession to daughter Jennie, 14, and Michael, 12. "I have two children that live in the 21st century, and I'm trying to live in the 19th century. So there's this constant pull."

Besides, he adds, the children had their share of living in a time warp when they were younger. Before going to Atlanta, Ott served for 13 years as director of the Hancock Shaker Village in Pittsfield, Mass. There the family lived in a 30-room house built in 1790 that was in a working community of Shakers, known for their self-sufficient, pacifist lifestyle.

"It was a totally unreal world because there were all these people making furniture by hand, and there were horses and blacksmiths and tinmakers. We had to do everything by hand - pump water from the well and light the wood stoves."

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