Industry museum director to leave post

Leader of 21 years to return to hometown, another job documenting a city's past

April 18, 2000|By Allison Klein | Allison Klein,SUN STAFF

Dennis Zembala has spent more than a third of his life uncovering and recovering the soul of Baltimore from the dark corners of abandoned factories.

But Zembala is leaving the city he has helped to preserve, and the Baltimore Museum of Industry must look for an executive director -- one who finds the same charm and wonderment in the grit and sweat of this blue-collar town.

Zembala, 57, is returning to Detroit, where he will be executive director of the Detroit Historical Museums. His last day is April 28.

His wife, Ann Steele, who is deputy director and chief curator of the Museum of Industry, will join him in June. She does not have a job in Detroit lined up.

William Cole III, vice chairman of the board, has been named interim director while the museum searches for a replacement.

"History is bunk," says Zembala, quoting master industrialist Henry Ford. "It's bunk as it's taught in books, because books teach boring politics as opposed to the real thing."

That's not exactly what one would expect to hear from a man who has a doctorate in American studies from George Washington University and has been at the helm of a historical museum for 21 years.

Zembala made sure the Museum of Industry had the real thing: exhibits showing the city's factories, chrome plants, printing presses, canneries and garment manufacturers.

Zembala's uncanny memory can place and date almost every one of the 45,000 artifacts in the museum, probably because he salvaged about 44,000 of them himself -- including the 1869 Platt Oyster Cannery on Key Highway where the museum is housed.

"1916," he says, pointing to an enormous green iron power converter. "It was used to power the Canton coal pier."

He can also tell about Beehler, a Baltimore company that in 1928 set up the first umbrella factory in the United States.

"When you look at the museum today, that's Dennis," said Raymond J. Piechocki, chairman of the board of directors. "It's going to be a tough pair of shoes to fill."

Zembala was a historian with the National Park Service and a historian of technology for the Historic American Engineering Record.

He started at the museum in 1979, when it was just an idea. He was hired by the city to conduct a historic site survey, and began slowly collecting artifacts. He went to 160 factories over three years, holding onto his faith that one day the museum would take shape.

In 1981, it opened.

He stayed with it and watched the museum flourish. Today, it welcomes 120,000 visitors a year, half of them students.

"His persona is so connected to the institution," said Courtney Wilson, executive director of the B&O Railroad Museum. "It's almost as if the institution and Dennis Zembala are inseparable."

Zembala says industry fascinates him because he comes from a long line of automobile factory workers. His family moved to Detroit from Poland in 1905, just as Henry Ford was starting his business.

Zembala says he is comfortable with returning to Detroit because he says the Baltimore museum is successful and he feels confident it can move ahead without him.

"It's very sad. I will always feel a connection to this place," he said. "Baltimore is one of the greatest cities in America. Out of all of the large cities, it has one of the greatest senses of history and place."

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