Heritage: From the Maryland Historical Society to the Museum of Industry, the area's many museums are finding innovative new ways to broaden their audiences.


January 25, 1996|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,SUN STAFF

As they walk through the exhibition of historic African-American crafts at the Maryland Historical Society, visitors hear the faint voices of chanteymen singing traditional black maritime work songs. The strands of music, purposeful and plaintive, seem to infuse these galleries with the breath of forgotten history.

"Sankofa & The Maryland Tradition" is a show that calls attention to more than a century of work by craftsmen who were often overlooked and sometimes anonymous: Painters and sculptors, photographers and silversmiths, furniture makers, potters, quilters and basket makers -- artisans who represent "a triumph of creative will over the forces of destruction," according to folk art historian Robert Farris Thompson.

The "Sankofa" exhibition, part of a series designed to display the heritage of African-Americans, also provides an example of how history museums are expanding their social scopes to appeal to larger audiences.

In recent years, Baltimore's heritage centers -- a group that includes museums of folk life, industry, transportation, religion, sports, the literary arts and maritime culture -- have developed new ways to help visitors enjoy their historic collections.

The Sankofa show, which spans 1790 to 1930, is built principally upon the holdings of Derrick Joshua Beard, an Atlanta collector of 19th-century arts and crafts. However, there is one section, drawn mainly from the Society's collection, which focuses on the work -- and lives -- of Maryland artisans.

Along with the many sophisticated pieces of furniture and fine arts, visitors will find homely works, such as cross-stitched samplers from the school run by the Oblate Sisters of Providence, the first permanent order of black nuns established in Baltimore in 1829.

And there are historic documents as well: On display for the first time is the Baltimore County record of emancipation for Baltimore artist Joshua Johnson, the nation's first professional African-American portrait painter.

One of the most intriguing items for local visitors is a thick new directory, which lists, also for the first time, those blacks in Baltimore who were known to work as artists and craftsmen from 1745 to 1890. Prepared by Society researchers, it is cross-referenced by name and by profession and also gives artisans' home addresses. (The gift shop will soon offer copies of this directory for $5 each.)

"As a history museum, our role is to relate the people of today to those who came before them: It's people to people," says Dennis Fiori, director of the Maryland Historical Society. "History is about what people have accomplished. Our role is to bring that history alive and make it better understood."

With holdings of more than 6.7 million objects, documents and artifacts, including the original "Star-Spangled Banner" manuscript, the Maryland Historical Society contains the largest collection of any heritage museum in the state.

But more visitors than ever are seeking it out -- in-house and outreach programs served 57,000 people last year -- because of the Society's efforts to improve the way it presents its shows and to examine the history of culturally under-represented populations.

"Mining the Museum," the Society's landmark 1992 collaboration with the Contemporary, established its agenda to exhibit the rich history of black people in Maryland as well as to develop programming which would relate more directly to black Baltimoreans.

This broadening of focus at the Society reflects changes in other heritage museums as well, says Dennis Zembala, director of the Baltimore Museum of Industry.

The growing commitment to present exhibitions that better reflect the breadth of America's social history has been fueled by public demand, by a new generation of researchers and by government funding sources.

During the past 20 years, there has been a flowering of heritage programs in Baltimore. The Museum of Industry, which celebrates the working-class history of Baltimore, introduces visitors to the oyster canneries and garment shops that supported previous generations and initiated thousands of immigrants into the American way of life.

The Baltimore City Life Museums, a collection of sites and historic buildings that has grown to include the H. L. Mencken House, has innovated its museum programming by introducing living-history presentations and demonstrations of traditional crafts.

Local heritage museums consider folk life, industry, transportation, religion, sports, the literary arts and maritime culture. Some use the city as an outdoor gallery, sponsoring tours through various neighborhoods in the attempt to integrate past with present.

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