2007 expected to be the year for Courthouse Museum exhibits

January 17, 2007|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,Sun Reporter

It's a room, a small one at the entrance to the Anne Arundel County Courthouse, with a little plaque at its doorway that says Courthouse Museum.

Save for a smattering of items stored there, it's empty.

It's been that way, with rare exceptions, for the more than five years since the restoration of the historic building on Church Circle in Annapolis.

But this year it is expected to become a window into the ties between the law, the area's history and its social fabric.

With grant money and funds raised privately, the Anne Arundel Bar Foundation, the charitable arm of the Anne Arundel Bar Association, is moving toward putting exhibits there that spotlight the community and legal cases, and using the century-old second floor with its grand balcony to dramatize interesting trials heard in the courthouse.

"So many major issues of the day get played out in courthouses. I do think the issues society is struggling with - gay marriage, abortion, slavery, the right to vote - the court deals with these issues of importance," said Ann M. Fligsten, a former president of the Historic Annapolis Foundation who leads the lawyers committee working on the project. "You've got civil cases, divorces, family law, criminal cases - the evolution of culture and the evolution of a population."

The court has little to contribute other than space. For example, because criminal cases can stay open for decades, documents and evidence from them can't be tampered with. Court paperwork is fairly dull reading, and people come to museums more to see than to read.

"We don't have anything to put in there," said Court Administrator Robert G. Wallace. "We don't have a gallows or something."

The lawyers group, looking at spending as much as $30,000, wants to go beyond the typical judicial portraits that hang on most courthouse walls, said Frances M. Czajka, executive director of the county bar association. The challenge is for the museum room of about 700 square feet to house the sorts of items that will pique the public's interest.

The courthouse sits in the midst of Annapolis's historic district, and while nobody expects it to become a tourist mecca, a museum in it could be a quick stop along the way for visitors to the city, promoters say.

Other courts in the state have minimuseums or museum space. Among them, Baltimore's Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse has a small museum, and Baltimore County has a courtroom dating from the 1850s that is registered with the Maryland Historical Trust, according to state court officials. The Courts of Appeal Building in Annapolis has display cases of photographs and documents around the building, and its library displays original prints of John James Audubon's famed Birds of America.

Queen Anne's County has the oldest courthouse in continuous operation in Maryland. Clerk of the Circuit Court Scott MacGlashan said the entire structure is considered a museum as well as courthouse.

The original part of the Anne Arundel County Courthouse, built in 1824, is the third-oldest courthouse in the state that is still in use. The upstairs was added in the 1890s, with a balcony reminiscent of the courtroom in the film To Kill a Mockingbird. The courtroom was regularly in use until it was refurbished in 1999. It is now for ceremonial use only.

The county court has been the setting for many a legal issue typical of points in history - slave trading and manumission, murder and mayhem, weighty political matters, civil damages stemming from buggy collisions to car crashes. But it also was where a socially prominent Baltimore woman was tried and found not guilty in the 1870s of poisoning and trying to poison three husbands and where challenges to many a vote count took place, such as the one in 1995 by Republican gubernatorial candidate Ellen R. Sauerbrey, who lost to Parris N. Glendening.

For many years, the hillside was the site of an African-American community. Excavations have turned up artifacts, some of which the lawyers hope to display in the museum.

They hope to tie in exhibits to historical dramas that unfold in the courtroom. Students have done a few re-creations, and the lawyers group hopes to expand that idea into minitrials taken from the pages of history, not unlike those seen at Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, said Timothy E. Meredith, a judge on the Court of Special Appeals who is on the committee.

Promoting the idea of re-enactments with a museum is Philip Deters, now an assistant attorney general in Maryland, who saw it in Hawaii. Opened in 1989, the King Kamehameha V Judiciary History Center in Honolulu has trial re-creations, exhibits and educational offerings. He suggested a smaller version in Maryland's capital.

"You can show how the law and people's lives interact," he said. "One leads the other at various points in time and it changes. And the law changes."

andrea.siegel@baltsun.com

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