Peale Museum must be saved Historic Baltimore treasure: The nation's first museum, for 45 years our City Hall, needs a new lease on life.

October 19, 1997

THE DEMISE of the ambitious but overextended Baltimore City Life Museums is about to become final. The last caretakers of its collections, padlocked since June 21, are being terminated. What started in 1931 as the Municipal Museum of the City of Baltimore is about to go out of business.

Museums die so infrequently that few in Baltimore have a clear idea about what comes next. What, for example, will now happen to the privatized museums' eight sites?

The likely answer is that those sites -- ranging from the Carroll Mansion and 1840 House to the Shot Tower and H.L. Mencken House -- will revert back to city control.

The main exception is the Morton K. Blaustein City Life Exhibition Center. Opened in April 1996 at 33 South Front Street, the magnificent 1870s cast-iron warehouse still carries a debt of more than $2 million and remains the subject of negotiations between the lender and the museums' skeleton board.

It took decades for the modest municipal museum to evolve into a large heritage depository. Yet by the time the City Life Museums' financial despair became known late last year, few seemed interested in participating in its rescue. This public and private passivity was particularly puzzling, considering that this is the 200th anniversary year of Baltimore's incorporation as an independent city.

The City Life Museums is such a can of worms we cannot offer any overall plan for its reorganization. There is one part of the institution, though, that ought to be saved at all costs. This is the 1814-vintage Peale Museum at 225 Holliday Street, the first structure built in the United States specifically as a museum.

Rembrandt Peale's pioneering repository, "an elegant rendezvous of taste, curiosity and leisure," closed in 1831. The building then served as City Hall for 45 years. It later became a school before being turned into Baltimore's official depository of heritage materials ranging from old surveys and maps to photographs and paintings by members of the Peale family.

Under the late Wilbur Hunter, the city-operated Peale Museum was more than that.

For decades, it was a unique exhibit venue for local artists depicting Baltimore scenes. Year after year, such juried shows as "Life in Baltimore" and "Maryland Artists Today" were eagerly anticipated.

No similar exhibit space exists today. Local artists have been without a dependable venue that sponsors thematic exhibits of high quality since the Baltimore Life Insurance Co. discontinued its county gallery earlier this year.

The Peale Museum used to be a multi-faceted community asset. It can be that again.

We urge Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke to reopen the Peale Museum under city ownership as a space devoted to all the artistic expressions that have made Baltimore great.

Pub Date: 10/19/97

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