Fascinating Baltimore Museum of Industry is getting its act together

November 26, 2006|By Jay Hancock | Jay Hancock,Sun columnist

Any important city builds on its history, preserving distinguished architecture but recycling other land as aesthetics and economics demand. But it also needs properties like the one at 1415 Key Highway, which serves past and present in equal measure.

Overlooking the harbor toward Fells Point, the tract once bore an oyster and produce cannery, a vinegar distillery and a shipbuilder. Now it's a shrine to the companies, workers and hardware that made Baltimore great, and a wedding and bar mitzvah venue on weekends.

The Baltimore Museum of Industry appeared in 1981, or about a century and a half after Alex. Brown & Sons and the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad laid ground for the city's rise.

That's a lot of history to cover, and the museum has not always been up to the job. But for its 25th anniversary, it has gotten its books back in order, increased attendance and trained its sights on the latest pieces of the economy to pass from the scene.

It still teaches about Bromo-Seltzer and shucking oysters.

But it's also sitting on a big collection of material from USF&G, the late, lamented Baltimore insurance company. It has been sponsoring lectures and screenings on the city's film industry. And it just got a bunch of stuff from General Motors' Baltimore van plant, which closed last year.

No other building says "Baltimore" like the industry museum. The B&O Museum focuses on trains. The City Life Museum is gone. The Maryland Historical Society is all Federal furniture and silver candlesticks. Baltimore was about shipping, forging, smelting, stitching and assembling, and it's all preserved on Key Highway.

The city, as the museum docents tell it, owed its rise to hard work and geographical providence.

Located near steeply falling water, it owned the necessary mechanical power to run mills and factories in the early 1800s. Located nearer the Midwestern breadbasket than any other East Coast town, it could import raw materials via railroad more cheaply than its rivals. Located on a major bay, it could ship the resulting products anywhere.

The resulting wealth created not only the high culture preserved at the upscale museums but the riot of commercial artifacts on Key Highway that, to be frank, are a lot more fun.

At the industry museum you can see the grinder that processed the original Old Bay seasoning, an old Esskay meat truck, a century-old tugboat that once chugged around the harbor, a Bethlehem Steel crane, an ancient teller's counter from Mercantile & Safe Deposit Bank, a belt-driven machine shop and a robot arm from the GM factory.

The museum documents Noxzema skin cream, National Bohemian beer, Black & Decker screwdrivers, Martin airplanes, Crown Cork & Seal caps, Beehler Umbrellas and dozens of other brands past and present.

Museum educators like to give microeconomics lessons, challenging role-playing visitors to "spend" their "earnings" from oyster shucking at the "company store."

They got a lesson of their own two years ago, when the organization's finance director was charged with stealing $324,000 - a fifth of the budget. Samuel T. Mercer pleaded guilty to the charge in January and was sentenced to 18 months in jail. Just before that, Tropical Storm Isabel flooded the museum's basement and damaged or destroyed numerous artifacts.

But insurance covered most losses from both the theft and the storm, says deputy director Carole Baker. Much of the museum's staff is new, including Baker and director Roland Woodward. In its most recent fiscal year, it covered expenses, turning around a $684,000 loss from the previous period, according to financial statements.

Crucial to its budget is the $300,000 a year it makes renting out the museum and a nearby pavilion overlooking the harbor. Sometimes it books as many as four events a week, says marketing director Jessica Williams. Guests toast the bride under a Glenn L. Martin airplane suspended from the rafters.

But you don't need to get married to visit. Baltimore's commercial past is on display six days a week for anybody.

jay.hancock@baltsun.com

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