B&O Museum's new look

March 24, 1992

Years ago, when Harborplace was just a glimmer in dreamers' eyes, Baltimore had three chief tourist attractions: Fort McHenry, the B&O Railroad Museum and Lexington Market. Having been eclipsed by newer attractions, all those landmarks are ready to be re-discovered.

The B&O Railroad Museum is a case in point. No longer content with staying in the shadows, it has decided to take full advantage of its location near the new Oriole Park at Camden Yards. While stationary trains not so long ago were its chief attraction, it has added bells and whistles, flashing lights and moving equipment that give visitors a better idea of the excitement of the railroad era. The museum has also embarked on an aggressive campaign to redefine its role in the community.

"We are dealing with a sacred spot right here," says John H. Ott, the museum's executive director, of Baltimore's contributions to transportation history. This city was the birthplace of commercial railroading, with tens of thousands owing their livelihood to trains. This city also was where the first Morse telegram was received. Yet little of that excitement was evident to museum visitors until recently.

When Mr. Ott, an acclaimed museum professional, took over the private railroad museum nearly a year ago, he was determined to change things. Although many of the innovations are still in the planning stage, enough things have changed to warrant new optimism about the museum.

Mr. Ott's long-term vision is an interpretive journey through transportation history. He wants to create a series of exhibits that weld together Mount Clare Roundhouse and the 18th century Mount Clare Mansion a mile away. Already, trains move between those two points on weekends and major efforts are being made to remove unsightly trash from the area so that railroading memorabilia can be installed en route.

Once the new equipment and structures are in place, visitors will see volunteers repairing locomotives and rail cars throughout that stretch. Meanwhile, new exhibits are being created for the roundhouse. A current exhibit features women in railroading.

Mr. Ott sees all this as a starting point for a 10-year campaign that, between the museum and the Mount Clare Mansion, may require up to $30 million in fund-raising and expenses. "I believe it's doable because we are not copying anything; we are doing something new," the director says.

A major fund-raising drive is in the future, however. For the time being, the museum and the independently governed mansion are engaged in planning, recruiting volunteers and building bridges to the nearby communities to get everything right.

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