Maryland's history permeates two small exhibits

January 21, 1994|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Art Critic

Everything goes in cycles. Early in its history, the Maryland Historical Society paid attention to history in its collecting and exhibitions: a cannonball from the 1814 bombardment of Fort McHenry, for instance. Later, there was increased attention to aesthetics -- a scrumptious Federal card table with inlay up to the eyes.

Recently, there's been an emphasis on re-interpreting things from a more historical, less aesthetic point of view, and on paying attention to everybody's history -- not just that of the rich and famous.

That brings us to two small exhibits just opened at the MHS, "YOU Make History" and "Mining the Museum."

In celebration of the society's 150th anniversary, "YOU Make History" is a one-gallery potpourri showing things the MHS has collected in the past and items that possibly will be collected today.

On one side of this cluttered room is a jumble of items from the past: Charles Willson Peale's painting of "Washington and His Generals at Yorktown" shares space with a barber pole, a 1949 television set and a photograph of Blaze Starr, erstwhile doyenne of The Block.

On the other side of the room, a jumble of items from contemporary life: a painting of the Maryland countryside by Eugene Leake; Pam Shriver's tennis racket; a T-shirt used in John Waters' film "Serial Mom"; a trophy awarded to Bea Gaddy for her humanitarian efforts; and, a sublimely tacky bowling trophy won by the MHS in the Baltimore arts institutions' annual "Culture Bowl." Also, sculptures, books, a pair of Rollerblades and even a Barbie doll.

There are ballots for viewers to vote on which of these items the MHS should collect, if any.

"YOU Make History" provides a diverting half hour, but has its defects. Among the contemporary items, there are not enough fine decorative arts. Why not, for instance, more works by contemporary craft artists working in Maryland, such as Anthony Coradetti or Adrien Rothschild, both of whom are included in the White House American craft collection?

More generally, the MHS, one of our most respected cultural institutions, has made an effort to be popular that is visually ugly and lightweight in content. That's not the society's tradition at all.

"Mining the Museum" is a mini-version of New York installation artist Fred Wilson's masterpiece. The MHS and The Contemporary, Baltimore's museum without walls, invited Wilson in 1992 to use the society's collection to create an installation relating to African-American and American Indian life in Maryland, as well as (in the society's words) "the role of traditional museums in preserving our shared heritage."

The result won the American Association of Museums award as best exhibit of 1992. Recently, Wilson was invited back to install a smaller version of the piece in a first floor gallery, where it will remain indefinitely.

The smaller version lacks the impact of the original. But it makes its point, right from the entrance, where there are pedestals labeled Benjamin Banneker, Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman but no busts on them -- because the society doesn't own busts of these great African-American Marylanders.


What: "YOU Make History" and "Mining the Museum"

Where: The Maryland Historical Society, 201 West Monument St.

When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays; 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays; 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays (Sunday hours through April only). "YOU Make History" closes Aug. 14. "Mining the Museum open indefinitely.

Admission: $3.50 adults, $2.50 seniors, $1.50 students and children 5 through 18

Call: (410) 685-3750

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