Historical Society spreads its wings

November 06, 2003|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

One-hundred-sixty-nine years after it was founded, the Maryland Historical Society is finally getting the museum it and the state it celebrates deserve.

That was the message from society officials yesterday as they prepared for this weekend's unveiling of a $30 million construction and renovation project that more than doubles the group's space.

"We deserve to have this kind of facility," society director Dennis Fiori said at a news conference inside the museum's new entrance pavilion, just a few feet from the newly constructed museum building, which houses the Carey Center for Maryland Life. The opening, he said, caps off "the most momentous decade in the history of the Maryland Historical Society."

FOR THE RECORD - An article in yesterday's Today section misstated the number of years Maryland has existed. The colony of Maryland was established 369 years ago, in 1634. The Sun regrets the error.

The first public glimpse of the new exhibit space will be offered Saturday during a $250-a-ticket Homecoming Party. Maryland-themed food and drink will be available - it's a safe bet crabs will be somewhere on the menu - and musicians and other performers will also be on hand.

But the real grand opening is Nov. 16, when the museum will swing open its doors for a daylong free celebration, complete with guides in period costumes. It's all part of what Fiori called "a programmatic change, as well as a philosophic change," for the society and its headquarters.

"The society never found its voice," the director said, recalling the cramped, badly lighted facility that used to house its collection. Pieces were displayed haphazardly, while exhibits were short on both explanation and context. The museum seemed more an afterthought than a destination or potential tourist attraction.

Recalling that some wag once compared the former entrance, which culminated in a front desk pretty well hidden beneath a staircase, to either a "bad small-town airport or the inner sanctum of an Odd Fellow's Hall," Fiori proclaimed those days over. The new entranceway pavilion, at the end of a courtyard fronting Park Avenue, "beckons people to come in here."

The society's campus, bounded by Centre, Monument and Howard streets and Park Avenue, now includes buildings from three different centuries - the Enoch Pratt House, built in 1845, which has been restored on the outside but will remain closed to the public for at least a year; the 1960s-era Thomas & Hugg Building, the museum's most recent home; the 1942 Greyhound bus garage, which will house changing exhibitions as well as larger artifacts (Nipper, the RCA dog, currently sits on its roof); and the new three-story museum building.

In all, the new construction and renovation - including the museum, administrative offices (housed in the old Greyhound terminal building on Howard Street) and library - provides the society with some 230,000 square feet of space.

A visibly pleased Fiori said he hoped the enlarged and expanded museum will greatly increase visitorship, which has never risen above 10,000 a year (not counting school and tour groups). "In the past, we've never really worked hard to get visitors here," he said, adding he hoped that number would double in the first year.

Importance of water

Visitors to the revamped museum will enter off Park Avenue, walking through a courtyard that ends in a reflecting pool that architects Ziger/Snead LLP included as a reminder of the importance of water to Maryland. Entering the new Beard Pavilion, visitors can turn right to enter the vastly expanded and updated library, which is now spread over two buildings (the statue of King Gambrinus that once graced Baltimore's American Brewery sits on a stairway landing off to the left). Turning left will put visitors at the entrance to the museum.

Pieces of the new space remain to be opened; the building's third floor, currently vacant, will soon house part of the society's huge collection of Maryland furniture, while the former Greyhound garage (rechristened the Heritage Wing) will house changing exhibits beginning next year (first up will be a display commemorating the great Baltimore fire of 1904).

The second floor contains portraits - including an area dedicated to those painted by Charles Willson Peale and his descendants - as well as part of the society's collection of miniature portraits. There's also a fascinating display of state landscape paintings, accompanied by contemporary photographs taken of the same spots, from the same perspective.

The first floor is devoted primarily to an exhibit titled Looking for Liberty: An Overview of Maryland History. Answering society officials' desire for a centerpiece exhibit that ties the state's history to issues still confronting its citizens - to give visitors "the sense that this is their history, too," explained exhibition developer Gail Fishman - it traces the concept of liberty throughout the state's 359-year history and how it affects different groups of people in differing ways.

"The exhibit needed a strong storyline," Fishman said.

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