Museum director sees outreach as essential gesture


May 25, 1992|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Staff Writer

On a warm spring afternoon, the courtyard behind the Carroll Mansion on Lombard Street seems far away from the noisy traffic and urban problems that exist just beyond its brick walls.

As executive director of Baltimore's City Life Museums, Nancy Brennan wants at once to maintain the oasis-like qualities of her downtown museums and bridge the gap that separates them from the surrounding communities.

Ms. Brennan, 43, has been in charge of these seven museums and historic sites -- the Peale Museum, the Carroll Mansion, the 1840 House, the Center for Urban Archaeology, the Courtyard Exhibition Center, Brewer's Park and the H. L. Mencken House -- for eight years. Previously, she directed the Constellation and the maritime collection of the Maryland Historical Society and ran a museum consulting operation in Boston.

She credits her father, former Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan Jr., with developing the philosophy she uses as head of the City Life Museums, trying to make them an intrinsic part of their urban environment.

Q: What is your vision of how a museum can reach beyond its walls to its surrounding community?

A: Our community around here is Jonestown, one of the poorest in the city. It consists of 500 families, most in public housing, on public assistance. It has all the problems attendant to poverty.

We have a group of community advisers that started working with us and, after a whole lot of trust-building, two things emerged as priorities -- education and employment. Education is fairly simple: You figure out what the need is and the best way of addressing that. Museums are well equipped for that. The employment issue was a lot tougher, seemingly, at first.

We looked at two slices of the community, senior citizens and families with kids. We started with senior citizens because money was easier to get through the federal Job Training Partnership Act. We recruit senior citizens who are below the poverty level who come with us for several months of regular training in employment skills.

They are terrific -- prompt, open, wise, no baloney. What they learn goes from greeting people, reception-desk type skills to computers and everything in between. We act as their employment agency and have placed people with other museums, which was our original intent, but also at places like T. Rowe Price. It's our fourth year. We've had 15 per class and anywhere from 30 [percent] to 50 percent get jobs, through us at least.

As for the kids, in 1989, we began a program for young adolescents, hiring a group of 14- to 17-year-olds -- it started with 12 but eventually ended up with six -- to do all the landscaping for Brewer's Park over a summer. The work was fine, but the key to the program was to have successful black people in this community, male and female, have a brown bag lunch with the kids and talk about what decisions they made as young adolescents.

This made an unbelievable difference. Two of those kids are going to college, and I can tell you that was never an option for them before. We are about to do the same sort of program with the redesign of the median strip in Albemarle Street which runs next to our buildings here. It's considered a barrier, a dividing line, in this community, and we want to try to eliminate that.

Q: Do you have any plans for other programs in the future?

A: Just north of here on a vacant lot, we should have a 30,000-square-foot museum open within two years. If you look at all our museums as chapters in a book, this will be the condensed version, the Cliff's Notes. It should be the best combination of exhibits and programs to learn about urban American history as it existed in Baltimore.

And the building will be a knockout, with an 1869 cast-iron facade from a fruit company building that was on the site of the Convention Center. Right now, it's sitting in Salt Lake City, ready to come home. We're about $700,000 away from having the total cost of $4.5 million in hand and, in these economic times, the trustees have wisely decided to wait until we have all the money before breaking ground.

When that museum opens, it will free up space here for an after-school program for latchkey kids from the community. We will probably start with about 25, but we have a building that was designed by code for this use that can hold 40. The plan is for an art, history, science program that will emphasize can-do activities, bolstering the children's view that they are achievers.

Q: It seems odd that in a time of budget restraints you would be eliminating the admission charge on Saturday as you currently are at the City Life Museums. What's the thinking behind that?

A: First, let me say that this has been a very difficult period for us. We are in the third year of budget cutbacks from the city government. But we haven't been hit as hard as other cultural institutions because we don't depend on city money as much as we used to.

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