Industry museum seeks birthday gifts

November 17, 1991|By Rafael Alvarez

Dennis Zembala is looking for a canning capper.

And he'd like to have an old Chesapeake Bay buy boat as well.

Beyond that, he covets a few acres of waterfront land at the Inner Harbor and a donation of big bucks to establish an endowment.

These things are at the top of Mr. Zembala's anniversary wish list for the Baltimore Museum of Industry, which this weekend is celebrating 10 years of preserving the city's industrial past in an old oyster packing house at 1415 Key Highway.

The South Baltimore museum will hold a public birthday party today with free admission and cake-cutting at 2 p.m. (Admission is otherwise $2 for adults, $1 for children.)

Mr. Zembala, the museum's director, said that to achieve his goals, "I need an angel . . . maybe several angels."

So far, he's doing well with the help of mortals, mostly volunteers.

In an era of shrinking budgets for the cultural niceties of city life, the private, non-profit Baltimore Museum of Industry continues to grow. It has an annual budget of about $500,000, a full- and part-time staff of 28 and about 90 volunteers who are pitching in to restore a turn-of-the-century steam tugboat, a 1937 airplane, rows of old radios and crank-engine delivery trucks.

"We're completely booked with tours for school groups through June, and I think it's because we offer a different aspect of culture," Mr. Zembala said. "This is the only museum that shows the history of work and working people, which is more of a shared experience than art."

Because more people can relate to the cart that sold America's first prepackaged ice cream -- run by Jacob Fussell out of 180 North Exeter Street in the 1840s -- than to a Cubist painting, the Museum of Industry is healthy with donations.

Many contributions come from the big businesses and industry whose past the museum celebrates.

But Mr. Zembala -- who said a decade of immersion in the history of local industry changed him "from a left-leaning academic to someone who's seen that individual enterprise is what our society is all about" -- wants more.

A "capper" for the canning exhibit -- a machine that seals lids on steel cans -- would complete a series of contraptions preserved on Key Highway that once made Baltimore the canning capital of the United States.

"With a capper," Mr. Zembala said, "we could can anything."

A buy boat would allow the museum to show the type of vessel that once sailed out to the Eastern Shore's skipjack fleets to bring oysters back to the city for packing.

And the land on either side of the museum -- the city fire department repair shop to the north and the remains of the defunct Hercules Shipbuilding Co. to the south -- would give the museum a chance to ease its growing pains.

It is now crowded by the addition of a 1942 shipbuilding crane from Bethlehem Steel Corp.'s defunct Key Highway yard, "a monument to 125 years of shipbuilding at the base of Federal Hill," Mr. Zembala said.

The old Hercules offices, the director said, could house the museum's administrative offices and its growing library and the 2 acres of land behind it could be used for parking. The real estate is now on the market for about $1.2 million, Mr. Zembala said; hence his desire for an angel with a fat wallet.

But overall, he's happy with the museum's first 10 years and is eager for the next 10.

"We've had a tremendous impact on teachers around the state, that's why we're so busy," Mr. Zembala said. "Children get maybe a paragraph or half a chapter in their textbooks dealing with the harsher aspects of industrialization -- ignoring the fact that it was industrialization that created the middle class, gave working people the freedom of cheap transportation, gave them washing machines and the ability to cook meals without spending 40 percent of their day preparing them.

"We tend to romanticize the agrarian aspects of our society," he said, "but 'Little House on the Prairie' was no Utopia."

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