Expanding state's collective memory

AN UPDATED HISTORY LESSON

October 24, 1992|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Staff Writer

History is being reinvented at the Maryland Historical Society.

In stark departure from the society's standard exhibitions -- which tend to focus on the sensibilities of Maryland's white aristocracy -- "Mining the Museum" presents a disturbing, intimate portrait of slavery.

Fred Wilson's acclaimed work of art, on display through February, has been a catalyst for change that is likely to affect future exhibits, programming and outreach programs at the historical society, a private, non-profit museum and library said to be the single largest repository of Maryland's cultural heritage.

Today, for instance, the society presents its first African-American family day.

The celebration, which includes craft demonstrations by African-American artisans, a workshop in collecting oral history, films, a living history depiction of Frederick Douglass and a guided tour of "Mining the Museum," is one way the historical society hopes to strike up a permanent relationship with African-American Marylanders and to redefine its own mission.

Without "Mining the Museum," such a relationship might not have been possible. Juxtaposing iron shackles with fancy silver, a whipping post with Victorian chairs, Mr. Wilson's personal vision speaks to all Marylanders about their collective history.

It shatters the "whole notion of scholarly objectivity," says Jennifer F. Goldsborough, the historical society's chief curator. "The real power of 'Mining the Museum' is the fact that it's personal. It grabs people in a very personal, visceral way."

In contrast, museums, including the historical society, have previously promoted themselves as "cool, distant, unemotional places," Mrs. Goldsborough says.

Staff members say Mr. Wilson's work -- created in collaboration with the Contemporary, a new, community-based Baltimore museum -- has had a great influence on their interpretive skills and on their ability to communicate with a racially and culturally diverse audience.

From Indianapolis, where he is creating a new exhibit, Mr. Wilson says his work of art "opened up the door to discuss everyone's diverse experiences within Maryland history." The show, he says, has also awakened people "who have not really understood that the museum was showing only one culture in Maryland -- a very narrowly focused image of Maryland."

Money has also played a role in the historical society's more enlightened approach. As the organization confronts increasing financial constraints, it has become more important to attract black audiences. The society is one of many such institutions "realizing that populations in urban areas have changed [and it] can't rely on traditional memberships to survive," explains Schroeder Cherry, director of education at the Baltimore Museum of Art. " 'Mining the Museum' is one piece of a much larger picture," he says.

The historical society has lost its entire funding from the state this year, for example, a sum that amounts to about 10 percent of its $1.4 million operating budget, according to society spokeswoman Paula A. Dozier. Currently, about 65 percent of its budget comes from endowment income, as well as donations and contributions. Membership dues account for 12 percent of the society's budget and the rest comes from other sources, including fund-raisers and grants, she says.

Museum staff have long understood the need to portray the lives of all Marylanders in exhibits and programming -- not only in fairness to the state's citizens but to justify its tax-exempt status as an educational institution, Mrs. Goldsborough says. But until "Mining the Museum," they "grappled unsuccessfully" with how to do it.

Though a true friend of the historical society, Dr. Theodore Patterson agrees the institution has done little in the past to engage the African-American community. Dr. Patterson is an African-American docent who often leads groups of African-American students through the museum. He says exquisite dressing tables and paintings of elite Maryland families spell "boresville" for his young charges. Calling upon his own store of knowledge, he says, "I try to make it meaningful and more fun."

While the historical society occasionally schedules concerts and other events relevant to the African-American community, they are usually keyed to celebrations such as February's Black History Month and do not occur throughout the year as an integral part of the museum's programming. Informal surveys and attendance at historical society openings also reflect scanty attendance by blacks, Ms. Dozier says.

Since "Mining the Museum" opened in April, the changes at the historical society have been as immediate as altering exhibit labels and as long range as designing a major show Mrs. `D Goldsborough characterizes as a "very blatant spin off of 'Mining the Museum' " to mark the society's 150th anniversary in 1994.

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