Changing History The Maryland Historical Society used to be seen as a museum for the wealthy male descendants of Europeans. But now it's broadening its focus to include the many other kinds of Marylands.

April 05, 1998|By HOLLY SELBY | HOLLY SELBY,SUN STAFF

Soon after Dennis A. Fiori was appointed executive director of the Maryland Historical Society, he attended a board meeting with his sleeves rolled up.

At least one longtime trustee took offense. "The trustee sent his assistant to tell me that he was upset because I was sitting next to a woman and my sleeves were rolled up and she was exposed to my arm hair," Fiori says and gives a great bark of laughter. "I think that tells you something about the place when I arrived."

Four years have passed, and Fiori still has his sleeves rolled up.

Under his leadership, the 154-year-old historical society has been quietly undergoing a series of philosophical and physical changes that, when completed, will nearly double its exhibition space, include reinstallation of many of its galleries, computerize its library, add an architectural artifact garden to its grounds and -- if all goes as planned -- change the institution's image.

"If we are to become Maryland's premier historical institution, then we have to broaden our audiences and reach out to a wide range of people throughout the state," says Fiori. "And we have to tell the stories of all Marylanders."

There is much to offer here.

The privately run Maryland Historical Society has an encyclopedic collection of 7.5 million items that range from miniature portraits to antique restaurant menus. (By contrast, the Baltimore Museum of Art owns 85,000 items.) Each piece of the collection, whether a woman's comb or a family photograph, offers a glimpse into a Maryland life. Many of the objects, if not preserved by the society, would likely have been lost forever.

Wander through its galleries and you come upon Victorian doll houses, a Spiro Agnew alarm clock, Peale family paintings, a 159-year-old quilt and fine china. Or, you see model steam boats, slave manacles, silver teapots and duck decoys.

Peek into the library, which is used by 10,000 people a year, and you gaze upon tall wooden file cabinets and rows of shelves -- clearly from an era gone by -- filled with newspaper clippings, census records, birth notices, bank records, maps, letters, photographs, daguerreotypes and prints.

Over the decades, the historical society earned a reputation for presenting aesthetically important exhibitions with firm, scholarly underpinnings. However, the exhibitions often seemed designed for decorative arts specialists and focused on superbly crafted artifacts. The society came to be seen as a museum that only told a certain kind of history: that of Baltimore's wealthy, white establishment.

"People thought we only collected white-guy stuff," says Fiori. "And that's the image we want to change."

The historical society now is working to broaden the appeal of its exhibitions, as well as expand its membership base through statewide outreach programs, happy hours and a newly created Web site.

Last year, the historical society opened its Heritage Wing, a new $2.4 million exhibition space housed in a remodeled 21,000-square-foot Greyhound bus garage. Over the next two years, it plans to spend about $10 million to renovate its existing buildings and to convert a warehouse on Howard Street into storage space.

And it also has taken over the vast and varied collections owned by Baltimore's City Life Museums, which had closed in 1997 for lack of funds and visitors.

Now the historical society is the new owner of more than 20,000 pieces of Baltimore memorabilia and 30,000 to 40,000 shards of material found in the Baltimore area by archaeologists.

The solidity of tradition

Fiori's office has the solid feel of tradition. The wooden desk is wide and highly polished. On the dark green wall above it, a 150-year-old English mirror hangs, flanked by stately his-and-her portraits painted by 19th-century artist Charles Peale Polk. The room's solemnity invites contemplation and hints at the historical society's beginnings.

When the society was founded in 1844 by a group of prosperous city residents, Baltimore, with its railroads and bustling harbor, was a boom town playing a lead role in the nation's life.

"The country was what, 70 years old? [The society's organizers] wanted to preserve its history, and to preserve the memory of the founding fathers, some of whom they had known," says Stiles T. Colwill, board member and former museum director.

But the society, like many historical institutions nationally, also was meant to be a place in which educated men could study, contemplate and talk. " 'Gentleman' meant learned. That you had read the classics, and you could speak with discourse on them," says Fiori, who was director of the Concord Museum in Massachusetts from 1982 through 1994. Prospective members were asked to fill out applications that included genealogical information.

"That feeling was still around even up in the 1970s, and slowly it has changed," says Colwill. "I think, I hope, I believe, that we have expunged that feeling."

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