New museum would focus on Md. blacks

December 17, 1993|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Staff Writer

A $15 million state-run museum devoted to black history and culture in Maryland would be built near Baltimore's Inner Harbor by 1998 under a plan endorsed by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke.

The Baltimore Development Corp. has agreed to reserve half an acre at the northeast corner of Pratt and President streets for the project, which would be funded by a combination of public and private money yet to be raised.

Mr. Schmoke said he met last week with planners of the 70,000-square-foot museum and agreed to set aside the highly visible city parcel, now a parking lot for Little Italy.

The museum would become the state's largest and most up-to-date repository of papers and artifacts related to black history in Maryland.

It probably would help tell the stories of many important blacks from Maryland, such as 18th century scientist Benjamin Banneker; abolitionist Frederick Douglass; Harriet Tubman, a leader in the Underground Railroad; jazz great Eubie Blake; and former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.

"This will place a museum dedicated to the collection and preservation of African-American materials right in the midst of the Inner Harbor, which is the state's premier tourist area," said Ronald Sharps, director of the Banneker-Douglass Museum in Annapolis and a member of the team planning the new museum.

"It will also be in the midst of Museum Row, which will be the city's most-developed cultural area," Dr. Sharps said. "From the perspective of tourism in the state and cultural attractions in the city, we will be in a key location."

The museum would be a major addition to the package of local attractions of special interest to black visitors, a list that also includes the Great Blacks in Wax Museum, the Eubie Blake Cultural Center and the Orchard Street Church.

In the past year, the city and the state have sought a larger share of the estimated $25 billion a year in black travel and convention business in the United States.

Del. Howard P. Rawlings, D-Baltimore, a strong supporter of the proposed museum, says it is part of "the state's continuing commitment to educating the public about the contributions of 25 percent of its population -- the African-American community -- to the economic, society and cultural development in Maryland."

Mr. Rawlings said he hopes Gov. William Donald Schaefer will give the museum high priority and include preliminary funding for it in his capital budget next year.

But the state can't be expected to bear the entire cost, Mr. Rawlings said, adding, "The African-American community and its friends will have to raise a substantial amount."

The site selection is a milestone for the museum, which has been in the planning stages for two years.

The museum would be created and operated by the Maryland Commission on African American History and Culture, an agency of the state's Division of Historical and Cultural Programs, in conjunction with Morgan State University.

Founded in 1964 as the state's Commission on Negro and Indian History, the state agency operates the Banneker-Douglass Museum in Annapolis. Situated inside the former Mount Moriah Church just off Church Circle, that 9-year-old museum is the state's official repository for materials relating to blacks.

Dr. Sharps and Rodney Little, head of the Division of Historical and Cultural Programs, said the Banneker-Douglass Museum will continue to showcase the state's black heritage and that a small expansion is planned. But growth is limited because Anne Arundel County is building a courthouse on the same block.

As a result, Mr. Little said, the commission had been looking statewide for sites for another museum. When the Baltimore Development Corp. suggested the President Street site, members became interested.

"It's a natural for a whole variety of reasons," Mr. Little said. "It's right at the nexus of the Inner Harbor and Museum Row. It would enable us to collaborate with the City Life Museums" and other projects planned for the east side of the Inner Harbor, including the Children's Museum at the Brokerage and the Civil War Museum inside the old President Street train station.

Dr. Sharps said the location would allow the new museum to draw from the many visitors to the Inner Harbor every year. The Banneker-Douglass Museum draws about 5,000 people annually, he said, but the Inner Harbor museum could attract "hundreds of thousands."

Mr. Rawlings said he likes the high-profile site because "it lets the citizens of Maryland know that this is an important priority. It's not being put in a back alley somewhere."

In addition to Mr. Little and Dr. Sharps, planners for the museum include: Spencer Crew, acting director of the Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institution; and Dr. Roscoe Moore, head of veterinary sciences for the National Institutes of Health and a leader of the Friends of the National Zoo.

Also involved in the planning are Samuel Greene, former chairman of the Department of Art at Morgan State University; Kenneth Rogers, chairman of the Department of Art at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore; and Aris T. Allen Jr., an architect and capital planner for the Smithsonian.

The agreement with the Schmoke administration calls for the city to reserve the President Street site for two years, until early 1996, so that the commission can firm up its plans and begin to raise money.

Mr. Little said he hopes to see construction begin in mid-1996 and be completed by early 1998.

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