Group fears museum to close

Foundation suspicious of motives of state and commissioners

2 directors lost in 2 years

May 17, 1999|By Jackie Powder | Jackie Powder,SUN STAFF

Last September things were looking up at the Banneker-Douglass Museum, home of one of the country's most extensive collections of African-American artifacts. After a year of bitter controversy, a new director was in place, new ventures were being planned.

Nine months later, Rosalind D. Savage is gone -- fired 10 days ago by the state-appointed commission that runs the museum -- and her supporters are talking again about the demise of a museum named for two eminent black Marylanders: scientist Benjamin Banneker and writer-abolitionist Frederick Douglass.

"If I had to describe the health of the museum right now, I'd say it's on the critical list," said Erroll E. Brown Sr., president of the Banneker-Douglass Museum Foundation, a private fund-raising and volunteer organization. "The museum for all intents and purposes is closed. The doors are open, but the museum's not going anywhere."

Ever since the firing of Savage's popular predecessor two years ago, the foundation has been suspicious of the state Department of Housing and Community Development and the Commission on African American History and Culture, which oversee the museum.

Some foundation members are convinced the state is bent on closing the museum. They're also worried about the care and condition of the museum's artifacts -- many of them donations from foundation members -- which have been stored for years at a state psychiatric facility in Catonsville.

Commission members and department officials have denied repeatedly that they intend to close the museum, housed in the former Mount Moriah African Methodist Episcopal Church in Annapolis. They acknowledge that some items in the collection have been damaged or destroyed, but say that the collection will soon be moved to a new state-of-the-art storage facility.

"It's appropriate that the Banneker-Douglass Museum is the flagship museum of all African-American museums in the state and will always be," said Carroll Hynson Jr., chairman of the nine-member commission. "That's why we're constructing a 10,000-square-foot expansion costing $3.5 million."

Desire to close alleged

But former director Ronald L. Sharps says he lost his job because he refused to close the museum, as suggested by Rodney Little, director of the state's division of historic and cultural programs.

"He didn't direct me to do it, but he suggested it would be in my best interest to close down the museum on some pretext, and that he would leave that to me as to what it would be," said Sharps, now assistant dean of the school of the arts at Montclair State University in New Jersey. Sharps also said that Little transferred money from the museum's budget to other state projects and thwarted his efforts to fill vacant positions.

Little denied that.

"There are various people in the community who seem to think it serves their interests to say that the museum is going to be closed," he said. "It was not true two years ago. It's not true now, and the best evidence of that is the very substantial financial commitment the state has made not only to the museum's current operations but to the expansion."

Savage's ouster, and the hiring last week of an "emergency" interim director with no experience in museum management, have led to heightened distrust between the foundation and the state officials who oversee the museum.

When asked to provide details about Savage's firing, Hynson said: "If an employee chooses not to follow rules and regulations, then it causes problems, especially when they may take directions from persons without authority."

Savage declined to comment for this article.

Reaching to community

Foundation member Yevola Peters said she sees a pattern: "Dr. Sharps reached out to the community and involved the community, and he was fired. Ms. Savage comes in, she reaches out to the community, she tries to involve the community, and she gets fired, even though there are two different bodies of commissioners. So there may be something institutionally wrong with the system that needs to be examined."

A foundation memo in March outlining the problems states, "the commission seems only bent on continuing a feud with the foundation and anyone who cooperates with the foundation is labeled a bad person."

The group's concerns appear to have some basis. Four museum staff positions have remained vacant for several months, including curator and research historian. State conservators who prepared a report in March 1998 on the condition of the collection found serious problems, including rodent and pest infestation, lack of regular maintenance, and leaky sprinkler systems.

Hynson said the collection in storage will be moved this summer to the state's new Archaeology and Conservation Lab in Southern Maryland.

"We knew the collection was in bad shape before we took over," Hynson said, referring to commissioners appointed since Sharps' firing. "We're working to stabilize it before the move."

Item's ruin `heart-rending'

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