A Bit of Baltimore You are here: Museum complex offers a basic sketch of city life through the ages. It will be popular with tourists and kids, but don't expect an in-depth study.

April 11, 1996|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

On the second floor of the Blaustein City Life Exhibition Center, opening tomorrow, you're met by a sign overhead that announces "I Am the City" -- the title of the building's core exhibit on Baltimore history. Not far into the exhibit, on the wall to your right is the text of a small segment on archaeology, titled "Fragments of City Life."

That title would be a better one for the exhibit as a whole, and even for the center as a whole, for it well describes what this new addition to Baltimore's museum scene offers its visitors: fragments, bits and pieces, a soupcon of this and a smidgen of that, all packaged handsomely and cleverly to give visitors two things -- a pleasant experience and the idea that they're taking an in-depth look at the city. But they really aren't.

On its own terms, the project must be called a success, for it will no doubt do just what those who developed it want it to do. It will work just fine as a tourist attraction. As a kind of introduction to Baltimore, the center points visitors toward other attractions. And, it will entertain school children and provide adult Baltimoreans with mainly nostalgic glimpses of the city's people and places. All the while, it's careful not to go too deeply into the subjects of other present and even future museums, such as industry or transportation.

The exhibitions housed in the 30,000-square-foot expansion touch upon many pieces of Baltimore's history -- neighborhoods, parks, ethnic and racial history, retailing, the port, immigration, transportation, population growth, philanthropy, sports, food and so on. It does so using many museum techniques, from room settings, cases of artifacts and written texts to audio, video and live performance. All of this succeeds in keeping viewers' senses stimulated, in keeping them unbored -- but also essentially unchallenged.

What it doesn't do -- what serious-minded museum-goers will seek in vain -- is provide the real substance of the subjects upon which it touches.

Instead, keeping in mind the shrunken attention span of the television age, the exhibits bombard those who come through with so many bits of information that they think they're getting a lot more than they actually do.

And they thus perfectly express the method of their creation. Brought into being over 10 years, they were developed by the project's staff, headed by John W. Durel (now executive director of the Baltimore City Life Museums), with input from academic historians, civic leaders and the public (garnered from interviews, round table discussions, focus groups, oral history sessions and the like).

"These are not curator-ego-driven exhibitions," Mr. Durel has said. "Each of the five exhibitions was creatively shaped in communications and conversations with the public." In all, more than 1,500 people were involved in the development of the museum's exhibitions, and it shows.

Significant shortcoming

"I Am the City," spread over an entire floor and expected to remain up for as much as 10 years, offers visitors their main experience. The first large segment is "City by the Water" (late 18th to mid-19th century). The setting is a market near the harbor in about 1830. The subjects touched on here include markets, the port, Frederick Douglass, Johns Hopkins and other Baltimore philanthropists, the free black community in Baltimore before the Civil War, silversmith Samuel Kirk and the artisan and apprentice system. Missing is any real sense of the substance of most of these subjects. There might have been a good explanation of how the market system grew and flourished in Baltimore, and has lasted to the present day, or of how the harbor and the port evolved over the years and the centuries. But there isn't.

Next we have "City of Neighborhoods" (mid-19th to mid-20th century). Here are three of artist Stewart White's seven wonderful murals, which are the best thing about the whole center. They picture a melange of parks (Mount Vernon Place, Druid Hill Park and Patterson Park) about 1900, a modest neighborhood of about the same time and Pennsylvania Avenue of the 1940s-1950s.

There are also re-created house facades (including white marble steps, of course) and furnished interiors, photographs of sections of the city accompanied by one-paragraph descriptions, and introductions to important figures including educator Henrietta Szold, builder James Keelty, journalists H. L. Mencken and Carl Murphy, and those who need no introduction -- Babe Ruth, Billie Holiday and Cab Calloway. Actors will re-create the flavor of life on Pennsylvania Avenue in its heyday, and, if the brief segment presented at the press preview is a good indication, that will be fun. But if we want to learn anything of significance about, say, how Baltimore's park system grew, or much about any particular neighborhood, we will have to go elsewhere.

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