Trouble at City Life Museums Director ousted: Despite a fine new downtown exhibit center, crowds fail to materialize.

November 14, 1996

THE TROUBLE at the Baltimore City Life Museums, which has culminated in the ouster of executive director John W. Durel, was a long time coming. It will not be easy to resolve without some painful decisions that may alter the current operating philosophy of the museum.

The City Life Museums is no different from Chicken George, a Baltimore fast-food restaurant chain which kept expanding and over-extending itself until it collapsed. Since its founding in 1976, the museum, too, has been on a rapid acquisition binge. From running the Peale Museum, the municipal history depository, it has grown into a museum empire that consists of a complex of several buildings on Front Street, the Shot Tower nearby and the H.L. Mencken House in West Baltimore's Union Square. Alas, the financial resources of the museum have not grown accordingly. Although the number of visitors has risen sharply since the opening last spring of an $8.4 million addition, it still remains well under the museum's goal of 100,000 year. With its scattered sites, the City Life Museums is a difficult and expensive operation, particularly because some of the exhibits require large numbers of period re-enactors.

The fiscal predicament of the City Life Museums became evident in late September when Mr. Durel eliminated six of 46 staff positions and limited the opening hours of the Peale Museum to weekends. Those moves cut to the bone as the jobs abolished included the director of interpretation, a curator, the head of the Museum Resource Center and three building management employees. In addition, the director of institutional advancement left on his own accord.

Mr. Durel was the No. 2 man under Nancy Brennan, who headed the museum for 12 years until a year ago. As a professional, he had considerable strengths. But he lacked Ms. Brennan's aggressiveness and convivial personality.

Finding a new director will be the least of the City Life Museums board's problems. At a time when privatization has cut city subsidies and the museum has to be fully self-sufficient, the board will have to reconsider whether it can afford to continue the operating model developed by Ms. Brennan or whether a less costly alternative would make more sense.

Pub Date: 11/14/96

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