Museums' officials see no conflict

Area black-heritage facilities can co-exist

December 19, 2003|By Gary Dorsey and Chris Kaltenbach | Gary Dorsey and Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

Officials of Baltimore's fledgling Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture are promising a facility geared more toward impressing on youngsters the importance of America's black heritage than impressing visitors with the size and scope of their exhibits - and that's the main reason they're not worried about competition from a proposed national museum of African-American history in nearby Washington.

"It doesn't matter to us," says board chairman George L. Russell Jr., who welcomed news that President George W. Bush on Tuesday signed a bill authorizing such a museum under the auspices of the Smithsonian Institution. "Our mission is to teach the African-American history and culture of Maryland to the public schools, and we view [other museums'] collections as sources of artifacts and other materials that can be used to further our own museum."

"We don't see them as competition, we see them as support," said Lewis Museum board member Wanda Draper, noting that the Baltimore facility, slated to open in a new building at the corner of Pratt and President streets next fall, already has signed on as an affiliate of the Smithsonian.

"They will be looking at African-American history from a national perspective," Draper explained, "and while we will probably include items from their national collection, our permanent exhibit will be targeted to Maryland African-American history. It's a different perspective."

Museum consultant Barry Howard said he saw no reason why the museums couldn't peacefully co-exist. While admitting "there is no question that there will be competition for audience," Howard stressed, "there really is an opportunity to coordinate the two projects so they become two bookends ... The best solution is to bring them together in some harmonious way. I think they serve two different purposes. The facility in Baltimore is going to be more focused on the African-American experience in Maryland. But I think a national shrine in Washington is what every culture in the country deserves."

From the start, Lewis Museum officials have stressed that much of their holdings, as well as what they choose to exhibit, will be dictated by an African-American history curriculum for grades 4 through 8, the details of which were unveiled Wednesday at state Board of Education headquarters. The curriculum includes 80 lessons and covers seven historical periods from 1600 to the present, focusing on Maryland. Field trips to the Lewis Museum will be integral parts of the learning process.

Although prominent figures in the state's African-American history and heritage will play a part in the museum's exhibits, the primary emphasis will be on stories of ordinary people - families, workers, community groups - who have formed the fabric of African-American life.

That mission has taken exhibits manager Margaret Hutto and registrar Kathryn Coney across the state in search of the best stories. They have been documenting the story of a sharecropper's family in Calvert County, met with the family of one of the most prominent black landowners in Montgomery County and investigated an underground railroad site in Cumberland.

Even their approach to gathering material is different from other museums, Coney said. Because the museum did not originate with a large donated collection, they are quietly developing connections with communities, taking care to "meet people on the humble," as Coney says. They depend on the generosity and interest of the people they meet "by word of mouth" to provide both stories and artifacts.

"There may be some [museum collections] people who would go into a community and say, `OK, we've got what we need, let's roll,'" Coney said. "When we go into a community, it's our responsibility to make sure the community is OK with what we're doing. ... And we're finding that when we go out on our trips, people are opening up because they see the commitment and they realize we're not trying to rob them. We're not there for just the one-time story."

The individual stories, selected carefully, will provide the historical sweep of larger narrative - dozens and dozens of particulars that will create a sense of life across time.

"We have the waterman's story, the tobacco story, the education story, the iron workers, the coal miners, the baseball story that was the Maryland Negro League, the story of a squadron that fought in the Civil War," Coney said. "You still have the Harriet Tubman story and the Frederick Douglass story - we want to cover the ones everyone is familiar with in black history - but we also want the ordinary people. We want to go back and trace their lives and bring them up to contemporary. We want to ask, `What happened to these people over time? How has the family evolved? Are they still here? Why did they leave Maryland, if they aren't."

Museum officials should have plenty of time to work out the details of their relationship. Tuesday's signing only approved the idea of having a museum, but did not select a site, set aside any funds or propose any timetable, noted Smithsonian spokeswoman Linda St. Thomas.

Sun staff writers Scott Calvert and June Arney contributed to this article.

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