Museum to put city on display

Founders of the Annapolis History Center, slated to open in spring 2006, hope its exhibits will teach visitors to view the entire capital as a `museum without walls.'

December 11, 2004|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

The minds that created the jazzy Spy Museum in Washington will help design a hip storytelling center that seeks to capture three centuries of Annapolis history.

At a groundbreaking ceremony yesterday, more than 100 members of the Historic Annapolis Foundation sipped hot cider as they cheered plans for a history center in what is now a plain brick three-story structure at 99 Main St. The idea is to provide a window to seeing the city as a "museum without walls."

While history is told in various places here - the State House, the Naval Academy, City Dock - the Annapolis History Center, slated to open in spring 2006, will try to blend these elements and focus on the evolution of the capital city. Organizers hope to tap into the more than 1 million visitors who visit the city each year.

Gallagher & Associates of Bethesda, which fashioned the popular International Spy Museum and new National Archives exhibits in Washington, has taken on the project, said Gregory A. Stiverson, the foundation's president. One idea already approved is to have the third-floor windows serve as a real-life diorama of Annapolis architecture.

"What we will do here is empower the tourist to shape their own agenda," Stiverson said. "Walk the streets and experience three full centuries."

He added, "Its time has come. It took a while for the ideas to fall into place."

The state first appropriated $650,000 for a history center in 1987. Fund-raising efforts, long discussions and a search for a site led to the selection of the modest 1790 building near the waterfront because, Stiverson said, "that's where people in Annapolis are - City Dock."

Annapolis, where croquet, shopping and sailing are some of the principal pastimes, hardly seems suited to the MTV generation. But a younger audience is precisely whom the center wants to attract to the planned $3.2 million center, said Brad Davidson, chairman of the Historic Annapolis Foundation.

"You know, the need is greater now," said Davidson, who graduated from Annapolis' St. John's College, one of the oldest campuses in the United States. "Fewer [people] seem to understand the past."

The center will feature high-tech exhibits and self-guided walking tours with narratives on subjects ranging from the signers of the Declaration of Independence to African slave Kunta Kinte, the subject of Alex Haley's best-selling novel Roots and the subsequent TV miniseries.

Kunta Kinte is believed to have arrived at City Dock in 1767, and a memorial to his descendant, the late Haley, can now be found there. The locally based Kunta Kinte-Alex Haley Foundation is dedicated to the preservation of African-American history.

"We're working with the Kunta Kinte-Alex Haley Foundation," Stiverson said. "I'd like to have children sprinkle petals in honor of all the people who came here in bondage."

Leonard A. Blackshear, president of the Kunta Kinte-Alex Haley Foundation, attended yesterday's groundbreaking.

"That legitimate [slave] history has got to be part" of the new center, he said.

Organizers said they want to cover many elements of the city's past - federal mansions and gardens, Revolutionary and Civil War history, the slave ship and steamboat trade, the majestic Naval Academy chapel, and the tiny workingmen's and watermen's cottages built in the 19th century.

Annapolis makes much of its Colonial and early-American pedigree, with written accounts of every visit George Washington paid. But for Civil War buffs, there are some lesser-known facts, such as how captured Union troops were processed through a camp near what became Parole Plaza shopping center.

"There's a wonderful Civil War story in Annapolis, but not one plaque about it," Stiverson said. "Tens of thousands of Union soldiers were prisoners of war in Camp Parole."

Not every speck of history will be presented. In excavating the ground floor of the building, archaeologist Thomas W. Cuddy discovered remnants of a well and stone wall that were part of a 1720s bakery that burned to the ground well before the current building went up.

Said Cuddy: "[The well] will be buried in place."

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