City Life legacy goes beyond mere artifacts

January 12, 1998|By Andrew Reiner

AS the excitement over the deal to save the Baltimore City Life Museums' collection fades away, the mayor and the Maryland Historical Society should rethink one important point.

While it's great that at least a third of the museum's 20,000 objects that interpreted Baltimore's history and culture will be saved and exhibited by the historical society, they did not represent the best of City Life's legacy and mission.

The 'Irsay Room'

Many of the objects the media and historical society executive director Dennis Fiori is pleased to have saved -- such as tire planters and a bathroom door from a now-defunct local restaurant labeled the ''Bob Irsay Room'' -- offer little more than kitsch appeal. These artifacts, which Mr. Fiori was reported to have called the City Life Museums' ''greatest hits,'' are amusing icons of local culture, which we appreciate for their tongue-in-cheek ''Bawlamer'' charm.

But they provide little context to the historical landscape of this 200-year-old city. Among the City Life Museums' offerings that did provide history in context was the museums' living history program. It plumbed the soul of the city with ''Steps in Time,'' a series of original plays that recreated seismic events in Baltimore history, including religious riots in the 1840s.

Few other local outlets have produced such riveting dramatizations of the African-American experience in Baltimore. For example, one production dealt with the agonizing decision some free blacks faced of whether to stay here or go to Liberia when it was founded in 1800s.

Dramatizations billed as ''Heroes Just Like You,'' taught school children about career options in technology and science.

In the past year, the historical society has begun its own living history program. However, the vignettes in its new Heritage Gallery will not be presented on a regular basis, and they will focus on past Marylanders from across the state, not just Baltimore.

We shouldn't expect the historical society to imitate the City Life Museums; it has a different mission. But we should expect the mayor and historical society officials to pay close attention to the strengths of these two institutions and act accordingly.

Perhaps officials at either the historical society or the proposed African American History Museum could get permission from for Dramatizations billed as ''Heroes Just Like You,'' taught school children about career options in technology and science.

mer City Life officials to re-enact some of the dramas.

More than just telling the story of the city's past, they provided a provocative glimpse into the forces that have forged this city's identity. And, in turn, they helped define who we are as Baltimoreans.

Andrew Reiner is former director of public relations for the City Life Museums.

Pub Date: 1/12/98

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