Remote location, lack of funds seen as drawbacks to Banneker museum

Expansion program aims to raise facility's profile

March 11, 2003|By Jarrett Carter | Jarrett Carter,SUN STAFF

Baltimore County's Benjamin Banneker Historical Park & Museum suffers from a remote location, paltry attendance and a lack of funding, according to the museum officials and volunteers.

That should begin to change after this summer, they said, when an expansion program begins that should raise the profile of the museum tucked in the historic mill town of Oella between Catonsville and Ellicott City.

The museum, about four miles off Old Frederick Road, describes the life and accomplishments of Banneker (1731-1806), an Oella native who is best known for his work in astronomy and land surveying, particularly in helping Pierre L'Enfant lay out Washington.

Maryland has a number of institutions highlighting African-American culture. Baltimore is home to the Great Blacks in Wax museum and the Eubie Blake National Jazz Institute and Cultural Center. Columbia has the African Art Museum of Maryland, and the Banneker-Douglass Museum in Annapolis is the official repository for African-American heritage in the state.

While these institutions garner recognition and praise for preserving African-American history and achievement, the Banneker museum, which opened in 1998, is relatively unnoticed because of its out-of-the-way location.

"We would encourage more use of the facility," said Keene Gooding, chief of recreational services for the Baltimore County Department of Recreation and Parks, "but location does have an impact."

The museum is on 142 acres purchased by Robert Bannaky, Banneker's father, in 1737. Bannaky signed the deed with his name and Banneker's, and on Bannaky's death in 1759, Banneker became the sole owner of the property.

For some visitors, the appeal of the museum lies in having American history near home.

"I think that this is a museum that has been way overdue," said recent visitor Frank DeLaine, activities coordinator for the Easter Seals Adult Day Care Center in Catonsville. "I was here for the grand opening of the museum, and it's just a good feeling to know so much history is so close."

The museum is displaying Faith, Hope and History, a photographic exhibit of historic African-American churches in the county.

Not many have seen it. The museum is leaving the display up for two extra months in hopes that youth groups or other visitors might drop in.

But aside from a small sign off Old Frederick Road, there are few other ways for tourists or residents to know where the museum is. The museum has attracted 5,000 to 8,000 visitors a year since it opened.

Gooding said efforts are being made to have more signs placed on main roads to heighten awareness of the museum.

"We have had people from the neighborhood come in saying that they never knew the museum was here until they happened to drive by it," said Ray Clark, a museum volunteer and manager of the gift shop. "Sometimes we have a busy day, sometimes there will be days when nobody comes in at all."

The museum also has a limited number of exhibits, and few artifacts from the Banneker homestead are on display.

Clark said the museum has many tools and materials that belonged to Banneker, but cannot display them because of a lack of funding to preserve the artifacts in plastic cases.

Steven Lee, museum director and park manager, said that the lack of government support for minority institutions is prevalent throughout the state.

"However, in terms of funding, the Banneker museum, along with other institutions such as the Great Blacks in Wax and the Banneker-Douglass museum, has done better than others," Lee said.

Last year, the museum received a $1.35 million grant for the expansion of storage space and exhibit design. Work will begin this summer, Gooding said. Also, the museum is preparing for the installation of the permanent Banneker exhibit, which will include artifacts from an excavation on the property done by the Maryland Historical Society.

It is beginning the second phase of the development of the park surrounding the museum, which will include construction of a replica of Banneker's cabin, and the re-creation of Banneker's farmstead, with orchards, a simulated tobacco plot and an apiary.

Even with the additions, those involved with the museum said its success depends on exposure. The Friends of Benjamin Banneker Historic Park & Museum Inc. is a nonprofit organization that helps to maintain and promote the museum in conjunction with the county.

"It all boils down to public relations - community-wise, county-wise, as well as nationally," said William Lambert, chairman of the Friends' board of directors. "I think that if we can relate more of Banneker's story and his contribution to American history, then there will be more publicity for the museum."

Lee said that more exhibits will attract more visitors.

"The Banneker museum is a young institution," he said. "It was established by Baltimore County, but its development is done in partnership with the community. Once the homestead has been fully developed, more people within the community will want to come to see what the museum has to offer."

The museum is off Old Frederick Road, at 300 Oella Ave., and is open 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.

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