Baltimore's attic City Life Museums: Blaustein building adds major museum near harbor.

April 15, 1996

THE OPENING of the Morton K. Blaustein Center transforms the City Life Museums -- including the Carroll Mansion, 1840 House and Center for Urban Archaeology -- into a single outstanding attraction near the Inner Harbor and the soon-to-be Port Discovery Children's Museum.

This is a major experience, costing substantial admission and requiring substantial time. It will inspire comparison to similar venues like the Museum of the City of New York, the City of London Museum and the Carnavalet in Paris.

This complex is devoted to "new history." The household goods of Charles Carroll excepted, it is not about great men but ordinary people of all ethnicities and economic conditions, some quite recent. As the Smithsonian Museum of American History in Washington is called "America's attic," this is Baltimore's.

It is filled with artifacts of daily life, magnificent photographs by the late A. Aubrey Bodine and others, expertly presented. The construction of a brand-new "old building" with craftsmanship of an earlier era, out of nothing more than the Fava Building cast iron facade, is a remarkable architectural achievement.

For many locals, the Blaustein Center portion will be a nostalgia trip. For tourists, old Baltimore and the regional distinctiveness are the lure. For children, a sense of continuity with the past. This is a big venture for the City Life Museums, the fruition of its creation out of the municipal Peale Museum. This new museum is not finished. The introductory film will not be ready until summer. A guide-map is needed.

The $6 admission price for adults reflects the ambition of the venture. The visitor gets $6 worth. But since many of the displays reflect people of modest means, City Life should explore the possibilities of a free day or half-day, so that they may all see their lives portrayed.

Eventually City Life must rethink the almost-forgotten Peale Museum, the oldest museum building in America used as such. It houses the important Peale family paintings. Since the main City Life installation is "new history," the Peale could be the place for "old history" -- the place for the mayors, riots and fires, great events, annexations and so forth.

But that is for another day. The opening of the Blaustein Center is a major achievement and new amenity to life in Baltimore.

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