Museum making plans for exhibits, expansion History: The Banneker-Douglass Museum in Annapolis has emerged from months of controversy. Its future is shaping up to be a busier, happier time.

October 02, 1997|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,SUN STAFF

Emerging from months of bitter controversy about its future and its staff, the Banneker-Douglass Museum in Annapolis' historic district is once again designing exhibits and moving ahead with an expansion planned for the year 2000.

"We certainly don't have rose-colored glasses on here," said Joseph Johnson, the museum's former deputy director and now acting director.

"But we're certainly nowhere near where we were a few months ago. We're making strides, and we're trying to assure people the museum is not going anywhere," he said.

The three-story museum, its arching brick walls and stained glass left from its conversion from a church, holds precious belongings of two eminent black Marylanders: scientist Benjamin Banneker and writer-abolitionist Frederick Douglass.

It also features portraits of other famous black Marylanders, artifacts from their lives, lots of history and an exhibit about the museum itself.

For much of its long history, the stately and dignified structure has been at the center of a controversy.

Most recently, a huge political battle was touched off last May after popular director Ronald Sharps was fired by the state.

Hundreds of museum supporters took to the streets in a candlelight vigil in Sharps' defense. Rumors proliferated that the state, which funds the museum, aimed to close it to make way for a new, larger museum dedicated to African-American history in Baltimore.

State officials issued heated denials.

Museum staffers cut off communication with its most loyal patrons, and a bunker mentality set in.

While many remain suspicious that the state has good intentions, state officials and local museum loyalists are beginning to work together again.

A recent fund-raiser was something of a breakthrough.

"The first thing we learned is that we always have to keep our channels of communication open, and we have to listen to the concerns of the community," said Wayne E. Clark, chief of the Office of Museum Services in the Department of Housing and Community Development who oversees the museum.

"We have to constantly reassure people that the state is committed to the long life of this museum," he said.

The Rev. Wendell Christopher, pastor of Mount Moriah African Methodist Episcopal Church, agreed, saying, "I don't see as much anger anymore. I think people are trying to take a wait-and-see attitude and see what direction the leadership is moving in."

The community has rallied around the building since its construction in 1873.

Before its museum days, it served as a church, a school for black fifth- and sixth-graders early in the century and as a meeting hall during the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

In the early 1970s, the county bought the property and planned to tear it down to clear a parking lot for the nearby courthouse. tTC Hundreds of Annapolis residents protested. Johnson said it was one of the first times black and white residents fought together for a common cause.

Then-County Executive Joseph W. Alton Jr., angered by all the uproar, told a reporter he would "man the bulldozer myself to demolish it."

But the residents won, and in 1984 the building opened as a museum, still a rallying point for blacks in the city.

Supporters say it has a future.

A permanent director will be chosen soon. The application deadline for the job was this week.

"We're looking for someone who has knowledge of museum programs and has a background in African-American history and culture," said Clark. "Mostly we're looking for someone who can interact with the community today."

New exhibits are going up.

The latest, "Benjamin Banneker: His Time and Place," opened two weeks ago and will last until the end of November.

It's a collection of artifacts Banneker used as he plotted the course of the planets and surveyed what is now Washington.

Clark said museum officials got the supporters' message.

"We need to build bridges to the community," Clark said. "Our strength lies in keeping focused on history."

Pub Date: 10/02/97

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