Courthouse Tells Story

Newly Opened Museum Mixes Social Fabric, History, Law

December 21, 2009|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,

People enter the Anne Arundel County Courthouse to get a marriage license, to get divorced, to settle disputes, to testify, and to take care of all sorts of things in their lives.

Add one more reason: to visit the just-opened courthouse museum.

Founders say the museum, some eight years in the making, weaves together the area's social fabric, history and the law.

The goal is to show that the little courthouse in Annapolis not only aired the dirty laundry of the day but dealt with big issues of their eras because the brick building was, and still is, where all aspects of society intersect. A courthouse, they argue, is a place where society defines itself.

"You have a city that is steeped in history and tradition like Annapolis. Why wouldn't you want to have the local history - the history that's been made here - memorialized?" said Saul McCormick, president of the Anne Arundel Bar Foundation, the charitable arm of the lawyers' group, which raised $30,000 to launch the museum in a room of the original 1824 courthouse.

Its creators have no illusion that this one-room museum of about 700 square feet will become a tourist hot spot. But it's in the city's Historic District, a business and government hub as well as a tourist mecca, said Ann Fligsten, who chaired the museum committee and is the former president of the Historic Annapolis Foundation.

Located down the road from the Maryland State Archives, the area is frequented by school field trips, scholars and history buffs, she said. Annapolis is also in the Four Rivers Heritage Area that lures visitors to the southern area of the county.

"People already walk by the courthouse. This gives them something to see inside," Fligsten said. "The idea is to have a density of sites and a variety of sites."

More than 4,000 people enter the courthouse every week, and maybe, if they have some time, some will take a peek at the museum, said Court Administrator Robert Wallace.

Nearly a decade ago, the building, which is the third-oldest courthouse still in use in the state, became the entrance to a modern addition that really is the courthouse. Plans for the addition had penciled in a museum in what used to be its clerk's office. In recent years, a temporary exhibit went into the museum and mini-courtroom dramas were staged in the ceremonial courtroom above it, but mostly the museum was empty.

"This building wasn't telling its story. Now it is," said Philip Deters, an assistant attorney general in Maryland who was instrumental in creating the museum.

The opening exhibit, likely to be there a few years, shows how the outside, inside and what's beneath the building contribute to its "Crossroads of the Community" title. In the works are interactive, online, school curriculum and living history components.

Other courthouses in the state have mini-museums or space of historical note. Among them are Baltimore City, Baltimore County, and the oldest courthouse in continuous use in Maryland, the one in Queen Anne's County.

Here, photos show the wrought iron-fenced courtyard as a place where people from all walks of life turn up. A black-and-white from 1955 has auctioneer Robert Campbell auctioning off properties. His son and grandson now carry on the business in the same courtyard, said Frances Czajka, the Bar Association's executive director. In another photo, a couple and their newly adopted daughter beam.

"Things are happening here that affect everyone," Czajka said.

Three significant cases about rights that were first heard in the courthouse - civil rights, voting rights and property rights - are profiled on panels. One is a challenge by three black men who were excluded from voting in a local election in 1909 by a 1908 law. The U.S. Supreme Court had the last word, ruling that they could not be discriminated against due to race in a municipal election.

Among display cases are those that hold artifacts on loan from excavations of the city block that now is nearly blanketed by the courthouse addition. Those include parts of porcelain "frozen Charlotte" dolls from the late 1800s or early 1900s and a bottle that once held Mexican Mustang Liniment, an 1800s pain remedy.

With the Key School, the Bar Foundation wants to present dramas based on court proceedings and re-enactments in the ceremonial courtroom, a cavernous space that was added about 110 years ago and features a balcony reminiscent of the one in "To Kill a Mockingbird."

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