Saving Banneker-Douglass

Annapolis museum: Parties must stop squabbling and strengthen African-American cultural venue.

May 28, 1999

IT IS TIME for the parties associated with the Banneker-Douglass Museum to stop squabbling and strengthen the Annapolis attraction, which is in dire need.

A commission appointed by the state to oversee the institution has instead jeopardized the museum's viability by firing two directors in as many years, without adequate public explanation. The state commission also has failed to safeguard exhibits in storage. It bears much of the responsibility for the current instability.

The Banneker-Douglass Museum Foundation, a private, volunteer fund-raising group, charges that the commission wants to close the 15-year-old attraction and turn attention to a proposed $19 million African-American museum at the Inner Harbor in Baltimore.

Yet that view is sharply at odds with the Glendening administration's appropriation of $3.5 million to expand the museum, located in the historic Mount Moriah African Methodist Episcopal Church in Annapolis.

Nevertheless, Ronald L. Sharps claims he was fired as director of Banneker-Douglass two years ago because he refused to follow a thinly veiled order to close the museum from Rodney Little, administrator of the Maryland Department of Housing's division of historic and cultural programs. Mr. Little denies the allegation, but the lack of a public airing of the museum's problems feeds mistrust among its supporters.

The latest alarm sounded earlier this month when Rosalind D. Savage, hired last September, was abruptly ousted as director. Scant explanation was given. An emergency interim director, without experience in museum management, was hired, heightening suspicion.

Those who are truly committed to the museum, named in honor of Maryland mathematician and astronomer Benjamin Banneker and abolitionist Frederick Douglass, must start from Point A.

The current exhibits are uninspiring. The paucity of artifacts on display in the old church is unlikely to boost attendance.

An experienced director must be appointed soon who can work with both the foundation and commission. That director must be given authority to make decisions to stabilize the institution.

Maryland has plenty of examples of tourist attractions that have thrived because of capable leadership -- or closed for lack of it. There is no reason Annapolis and Baltimore can't both support complementary museums for African-American history and culture.

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