Offering an expanded view of history

Historical society museum reopens after five months with more space, exhibits

$20 million expansion project

November 17, 2003|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

Hundreds of history buffs turned out for the reopening of the expanded Maryland Historical Society museum yesterday, listening to a brass band play in a new plaza, crowding around Francis Scott Key's manuscript of "The Star-Spangled Banner" and helping their children try on 19th-century costumes.

The institution was closed for five months as workers completed a $20 million expansion that more than doubled its size, adding a three-story exhibit building, entrance plaza with reflecting ponds, an expanded library, renovated reading room, gift shop and classroom.

"We have one of the biggest collections of Americana in the world - almost 7 million objects - and this additional space will help us better manage it and display it for the public," said Dennis Fiori, director of the society. "We hope the new buildings will help to really turn people on to history."

Among the exhibits opening yesterday were Looking for Liberty: An Overview of Maryland History, which presents a detailed timeline of the state's evolution - with paintings, maps and historical objects on display - from the Colonial era to present.

Also opening was Maryland Through the Artist's Eye, which shows landscape paintings, portraits, drawings and artifacts from the state's cultural history, including composer Eubie Blake's glasses, baton and handwritten sheet music.

To give the reopening a festive feeling, the organizers invited the Baltimore Ravens Marching Band to play in the museum's new plaza in the 600 block of Park Ave. Vendors sold popcorn, soda and hot dogs. Inside, children wriggled into clothing that their peers from the early 19th century might have worn. Others sat as artists sketched their portraits. "We are not just displaying, we are educating," said Barbara Katz, president of the society's board of directors. "This used to be a dark stodgy place. But it isn't that anymore."

In a new exhibit called Step Into A Child's World, Marc Silverman, 42, helped his 5-year-old son, Landon, balance in a wooden boat and manipulate a pair of long rakes as they pretended to dredge oysters from a sheet of plastic that represented the Chesapeake Bay.

"It's good for kids to understand the history of Maryland, and learn how people lived back then," said Silverman, 42, a mortgage banker from Roland Park.

Nearby, a father helped his daughter pump the handle of a butter churn. Other parents helped their children hammer caulk between the boards of a mock ship, scratch their names with a quill pen, or play with wooden marionettes of a kind used centuries ago.

Elsewhere in the three-story, zinc-clad exhibit building, guests crowded around a wooden case where an early draft of Francis Scott Key's poem, "The Star-Spangled Banner," was on display.

Above the handwritten verses is a huge oil painting of the bombardment of Fort McHenry by the British navy Sept. 14, 1814. The tattered American flag hangs over the smoke-veiled fortress as explosions flash in the sky, at sea and on the ground.

Linda Smith, a teacher from Pikesville, said she thinks the new exhibit space is a more open and attractive place to see important artifacts. "It's fantastic," she said.

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