Baltimore City Life Museums were christened a dozen years ago, in the midst of downtown's celebrated renaissance, a testament to the city's rich history and the sense of optimism over its future.
The museums closed June 20, quietly and abruptly, in the year of Baltimore's bicentennial, a victim of apathy and management miscues in a civic landscape of increased competition for attention and money.
As city leaders and museum officials began assessing City Life's prospects, they and others took stock of what went wrong at the nine-museum repository of important and quirky artifacts of Baltimore's past.
"Where is everybody?" Francis A. Contino, City Life's board chairman, lamented last week, confirming that the museums drew fewer than half of their projected 100,000 annual visitors.
"There's a lack of support from foundations, corporations, the citizens, the city," he added. "Does anybody care about the history of the city of Baltimore?"
Others seemed less perplexed by the limited appeal of the museums' eclectic collection of memorabilia, from painted window screens to Nipper, the famous 14-foot-tall RCA dog.
The museums were off the tourism track and poorly promoted, they say. The static collections in an age of interactive displays never caught the imagination of out-of-town visitors or even many Baltimoreans. Several of the attractions were open only a few hours each week, and an expensive expansion left the museums more than $2 million in debt.
"I think the obscurity of the museums is probably the major reason," said Donald P. Hutchinson, president of the Greater Baltimore Committee. "The various museums that are part of this have never been core draws -- they're not the aquarium, the zoo, the science center, and none is in mainstream traffic areas."
He added: "City Life is pretty, but most people want to see something they've never seen before. It's not participatory, not as exciting" as other attractions.
Accolades won earlier
Ironically, a decade earlier, City Life had won national recognition for involving audiences by having costumed actors portray historical figures and everyday people from the 19th century.
"It was moving, touching. People would leave with tears in their eyes," recalled Barry Kessler, a curator who helped create the 1840 House and is assistant director of the Jewish Museum of Maryland.
But Judith Landau, the former assistant director of George Washington University's Museum Education Program and a museum consultant, said that kind of creativity may not be enough in an age when museum-goers seek high-tech "infotainment" and supporters want "big-bang glitz."
"We're seeing this not only in small museums but in orchestras around the country. There are lots of cultural institutions that are starving to death," she said.
To many in the profession, City Life has been "a model of a small organization with a big heart that takes very seriously its mission," Landau said. But like many similar museums, she said, it failed to fully explain itself to its audience.
"I'm not sure that people really understand that history museums are places where they can find themselves," she said.
City Life's progenitor, the Municipal Museum on Holliday Street, better known as the Peale Museum, never had to worry much about its public appeal. The archive of photographs and artifacts was operated by the city beginning in 1931 and for decades relied on city coffers for almost all its funding.
Added to the roster were the Carroll Mansion in 1967 and the H. L. Mencken House in 1983. Named the Baltimore City Life Museums in 1985, the three early attractions soon were joined by a small complex on the eastern edge of downtown that included the 1840 House and the Center for Urban Archaeology and was soon dubbed Museum Row.
Three years ago, City Life took over the nearby Shot Tower, a historic brick ammunition factory, from the Department of Recreation and Parks. Last year, it added its multimillion-dollar centerpiece, the 30,000-square-foot Morton K. Blaustein Exhibition Center, a hall with an ornate cast-iron facade that temporarily boosted its visibility but left it deeply in debt.
Between its baptism and its mid-1990s expansion, City Life became a private, nonprofit organization in 1992, though it received an $800,000 annual city subsidy through this fiscal year, which ends tomorrow. In all, taxpayers have contributed an estimated $10 million.
Series of setbacks
During the past year, it experienced a downward spiral: staff layoffs, shortening of hours and last-ditch efforts to get a new city subsidy. Its longtime director, Nancy Brennan, left shortly before the grand opening of the Blaustein building in April 1996.
Just before the museums closed, their months-long attempts to merge with the Maryland Historical Society fell through.