THE INAUGURATION today of the expanded Jewish Historical Museum of Maryland underscores what a powerhouse a properly run ethnic museum can be. The two opening exhibits -- one on modern artistic interpretations of ancient prayer texts, the other on Maryland's links with Israel -- are both first rate. Moreover, they appeal to visitors regardless of their cultural or religious background.
The $3.8 million expansion (including $1.3 million for an endowment) more than doubles the size of the museum that adjoins two religious and architectural landmarks -- the Lloyd Street Synagogue (1845) and the still-functioning B'nai Israel Congregation (1876). They were once in the center of East Baltimore's early Jewish residential settlements. Except for a couple of delicatessens on Lombard Street's "Corned Beef Row," few remnants of that past survive.
By 1960, when the Jewish Historical Society of Maryland was established, Baltimore's Jewish communities were on a trek to northwestern suburbs. The society's first mission was to save the Lloyd Street shul from demolition. A museum opened in 1987.
The addition allows the museum to have two exhibits at the same time. As "Bridges to Zion" and the canvases on worship by Archie Rand illustrate, one could feature history and artifacts, while the other could showcase gallery art. This gives much flexibility to the museum's capable curator, Barry Kessler.
The Jewish Historical Museum's expansion comes as the surrounding neighborhood is set for more physical changes. The three towers of Flag House Courts, a 1950s public housing high-rise project north of Little Italy, are slated for demolition in two years, to be replaced by a townhouse development. Meanwhile, the city continues to work on a blueprint to redevelop the nearby Central Avenue corridor leading to Fells Point.
The Jewish Historical Museum promises to be an important factor in this transformation. Says Director Bernard P. Fishman, "We by ourselves cannot change the neighborhood. But we are an example of what can be done with ambitious but achievable goals."
Pub Date: 3/08/98