Leave the teacups in the closet

Our view: Historical society must find ways to stay relevant for a new generation

December 29, 2009

In an era of History Channel TV and gushers of new books, documentaries and movies on historical subjects, you'd think business would be booming at the Maryland Historical Society. Yet when the state's oldest cultural institution announced last month that it was cutting staff, programs and hours of operation for the second time in three years to cope with a $617,000 budget deficit, one didn't have to look far for the reason.

The society's current exhibition, a reasonably in-depth exploration of Marylanders' participation in World War II and its impact on subsequent state history, deals with a perennially popular subject that one might expect to draw crowds of visitors. But on a recent day, the galleries were virtually empty.

No museum can long survive that kind of public indifference. The historical society is the primary institution for preserving and interpreting the state's history, but it is finding itself increasingly irrelevant to audiences who see its rows of Colonial-era portraits, displays of 18th-century silver and decorative arts as stuffy and old-fashioned. Unless it can somehow capture the imagination of a new generation of museum-goers accustomed to challenging, cutting-edge exhibits on topics of contemporary interest, its financial woes are bound to get worse.

The society, like historical groups across the country, has struggled to boost attendance for years, and like other nonprofits it's been hit hard by the recession, which has cut into individual and corporate donations, government grants and endowment income. Cultural institutions everywhere have been forced to cut back or close their doors.

On top of that, the society never really recovered from the hole it fell into as a result of the $30 million construction and renovation project on its building at 201 W. Monument St. that was completed in 2003. That ambitious expansion doubled its space, updated its infrastructure and reinstalled much of its collection. But it also left the organization with unexpectedly higher energy costs and other unanticipated expenses that produced a sea of red ink.

In 2006, the society cut its staff by a fifth, consolidated departments, scaled back its exhibition schedule and took other actions to close a cumulative operating deficit that had grown to $1.2 million. That year, the group also suffered a leadership crisis when its newly hired director, W. Eric Emerson, abruptly resigned after less than four months on the job.

For better or worse, the society's current troubles stem from past financial decisions that continue to haunt it, and they are compounded by the departure last month of its most recent director, Robert W. Rogers. We hope the appointment of interim director Burton Kummerow, who heads a Towson company that produces popular books, films and museum exhibitions on historical subjects, signals the society is willing to try new ways to broaden its appeal for general audiences.

Board president Alex G. Fisher has enlisted former state senator Robert R. Neall to help look for ways to operate more efficiently. Clearly, the society needs to get a better handle on its finances and develop a sustainable business model. But in order to thrive, it's also going to have to shed its fuddy-duddy aura of exclusiveness and embrace the kind of intellectually stimulating, visually compelling exhibitions and programs that attract wider public interest and support - and a much larger volume of visitors through its doors.

The days when the museum could rely on displays of fancy teacups and silver coffee pots to pay the bills are fast approaching an end.

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