A house of learning

June 23, 2005

THE INNER HARBOR'S newest star showcases the past to illuminate the present and help educate future leaders. Its official name is a mouthful, but the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture, which has its grand public opening on Saturday, aims to extend downtown economic development and boost tourism. The ambitious project captures the struggle and contributions of African-Americans in this former slave state and beckons those who want to experience a culture that continues to enrich the state and the nation.

A decade in the making, the museum represents a $30 million-plus public and private investment in a place that its creators hope will become a must-see destination for Maryland residents and visitors. Mr. Lewis, who died in 1993, grew up in Baltimore and made his own history as a lawyer turned entrepreneur, engineering one of the largest leveraged buyouts of overseas assets by an American company. His family foundation contributed $5 million to the project.

The museum seeks, among other things, to give perspective to Maryland's divided history as a slave state that remained in the Union during the Civil War and was home to blacks who became national heroes, including Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman. The building's contemporary design and dM-icor encases some of the state's and the nation's sadder legacies. A traveling exhibit about the Henrietta Marie, a wrecked 17th-century slave ship first discovered off the coast of Florida in 1972, traces the early days of the elaborate trans-Atlantic slave trade.

Three permanent exhibitions examine different aspects of African-American life in Maryland: a look back at 200 years of slavery, including stories of slaves who escaped and some who purchased their own freedom; work and labor, focusing on water-related work from boat-building to crab-picking, tobacco cultivation and iron-working; and art and culture. All the exhibits are brought to life through personal stories, family histories, replicas and reproductions, drawings and photographs, interactive displays and other methods.

While the museum is large enough to carry such exhibits, it's also intimate enough to engage people as individuals and in groups. It has already become a rich repository of artifacts and memorabilia donated by collectors. Visitors are encouraged to go into a studio and record oral family histories. The museum has also become an invaluable resource for educators and schoolchildren. Experts helped develop an extensive curriculum that brings to life the historical and contemporary experiences of African-Americans in Maryland. It also has classrooms that can be used for on-site teaching and distance education.

It is in these spaces, serving as smaller houses of welcome and learning, that this largest African-American museum on the East Coast may enjoy its greatest success.

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