A proud new future for Maryland's past

A vastly improved, more engaging Maryland Historical Society opens


November 16, 2003|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

Of course, The Star-Spangled Banner is still there - the original manuscript of the little poem written in 1814 by Francis Scott Key that would become his country's National Anthem.

But visitors to the Maryland Historical Society, which opens today after being closed for five months, will see far more than one famous document - even if it remains the collection's centerpiece, preserved under glass and on view for only 10 minutes each hour. (During the other 50 minutes, a facsimile will be on display).

"What we've built is really the first true museum for the historical society," says Director Dennis Fiori. "What we had before was a gallery. ... If we were going to better serve the public, if we were going to say to the public that `we want you to come here, we want you to be engaged,' we had to show that we meant it."

To that end, the society, located at 201 W. Monument St., has undergone an ambitious $30-million construction and renovation project during which it doubled its space, updated its aging infrastructure and reinstalled much of its collections. The changes include an entrance pavilion, which allows visitors to step into the museum from Park Avenue instead of Monument Street; and a new building that connects the original museum and library with the old Greyhound bus garage (the building with the RCA dog Nipper on its roof). The MHS today celebrates its new space with free admission, childrens' activities and entertainment by living history actors.

"Our collection had grown measurably over the last 30 years," says Fiori, "but our facilities hadn't grown, hadn't kept pace with our needs. We had no classrooms, inadequate storage, did not have the proper climate for exhibiting our collection."

My, how things have changed. The new and improved society includes a modernized, user-friendly H. Furlong Baldwin Library (quite a departure from the jumble of ill-lit cubbyholes patrons used to find). There are several exhibits designed for children, including one that urges them to dress in period costume. Another, Maryland Through the Artists' Eye, features landscapes and portraits (including a few works by Charles Wilson Peale and his descendants).

But the centerpiece is Looking for Liberty: An Overview of Maryland History, which sprawls throughout the new building's first floor and explores Maryland citizens' 369-year struggle for freedom.

Divided into six sections including "Defense & Protection" and "Self-Expression", the show includes about 100 objects from a Spiro Agnew alarm clock to a tin cup etched with the names of participants at a reunion for veterans of the Battle of North Point. There's also a sampler embroidered by a student at a 19th-century school for blacks that was founded by Mother Elizabeth Lange, a mural made of bullets recovered from the Antietam battlefield and a primitive wood sculpture of Abraham Lincoln.

"We wanted a thematic direction that would enable visitors to understand a concept as it evolved from the past to the present," says Nancy Davis, the museum's deputy director.

Some objects are fine art. Others could well have been found in the depths of a garage. Some, such as a metal sign touting a restaurant atop Savage Mountain, tell tales of the mundane. But other pieces offer shocking reminders of slavery's brutality.

All tell part of Maryland's story. "Too many Marylanders have not seen the pivotal place that Maryland takes in the whole history of America," Davis says.

What follows is a small sampling of the objects on view:

Inspiring to fight

A white linen flag, roughly six feet by nine feet, dominates the view as one enters Looking for Liberty. Once flown by the 1st Maryland Infantry of the Confederate States of America, the flag has, at its center, a colorful design incorporating the state seal, a crudely drawn American eagle, a farmer, a fisherman and the Latin motto: Crescite et multiplicandum. ("Go forth and multiply.")

The flag, recently donated to the MHS by the Massachusetts Historical Society, was captured in 1861 by Union troops from Massachusetts. It is, Davis admits, "rather homemade-looking." But much of its allure lies in its rough simplicity.

No one knows who made it, but the flag itself serves as a record of his or her talents. Rather than fierce or determined, the men depicted seem cocky and relaxed, as though the thought of battle didn't faze them.

Was the flag created by soldiers who were determined not to seem scared? Sewn by a group of wives, hoping to instill the courage needed for victory? Was it crafted by a professional artisan? Could the same person have stitched flags for Maryland's Union troops, as well?

Made to inspire men to fight, the flag now seems to wave the curious onward.

Famous journalist

An unremarkable typewriter, an Underwood model manufactured by the millions, sits atop an unremarkable desk - and that's where the generic nature of this writing-station ends.

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