Md. Historical Society rebounds with Peale works

Paintings are part of newest exhibit at troubled museum

February 11, 2010|By Tim Smith | tim.smith@baltsun.com | Baltimore Sun reporter

If all goes well, the face of George Washington, staring out stoically and nobly from a huge painting never displayed before in Baltimore, will greet visitors to the Maryland Historical Society on - appropriately - Presidents Day.

This week's devastating snow forced the postponement of an exhibit kickoff party until April, but only another blizzard would delay Monday's launch of "Maryland's National Treasures," a substantial exhibit put together in collaboration with the Maryland State Archives.

And even if the weather were to intrude on that opening day, it wouldn't likely keep the 165-year-old Historical Society from continuing its journey back from a rough patch two months ago that led to reductions in staff and operating hours. Some of those hours might be restored as soon as next week.

"We want to be open to the public and share as much with the public as we can," said Burt Kummerow, who was named interim director in December. "And this new exhibit tells a really interesting story. It's not just about dead white guys, but the people who built our country."

"Maryland's National Treasures" is anchored by three large, just-restored paintings that have long hung in the State House in Annapolis. While the Old Senate Chamber there is being renovated, the paintings will have a home until the spring of 2011 at the Historical Society. Most visitors to Annapolis are not likely to have ever gotten as up-close a view as will be available in Baltimore.

The works include Charles Willson Peale's portraits of William Paca and William Pitt (done up as a Roman consul). Another, painted in 1784 by Peale, portrays Washington, the Marquis de Lafayette and Washington's aide-de-camp, Marylander Tench Tilghman, at Yorktown.

Kummerow, a longtime historian, jumped eagerly into the exhibit planning when he succeeded Robert Rogers as director.

"I saw it as a turning point for the Historical Society," Kummerow said. "We're using our collection to re-establish ourselves as the mother ship. We have so much collective memory of the history of Maryland."

The new energy emanating from the society these days is reflected in some encouraging financial news.

"We have some momentum," said Alex. G. Fisher, president of the society's board of trustees. "Probably the low point was late last summer, when we lost $200,000 from state cutbacks and a reduction of support from membership. But since then, the trustees increased their contributions by 100 percent, and contributions from the membership have increased 15 percent."

Fisher said the society, which has an annual budget of $2.5 million, "has not had not any debt for about five years." There is an endowment of about $15 million, but that "is not enough to support an institution with a collection of this scope," he said.

Fisher and Kummerow are committed to increasing operating hours, from two days a week to three. If not next week, the new hours would begin in March, Fisher said.

Another major goal is to raise the profile of the society. One possibility is a name change. Among the suggestions floating around is "The Center for Maryland History." Getting the word "museum" into the title, as was done for a period in the early 1990s, is also being considered.

"It has been the Maryland Historical Society for 165 years, so there is some resistance to changing it," Fisher said.

Whatever the name, the society has a remarkable trove, from folk art and maritime exhibits to "Maryland's National Treasures." Kummerow plans to add such things as an exhibit exploring Maryland's history with slavery as soon as possible.

"It's a tough climate for us right now, but if we can get the word out, I think we can attract more people to our institution," Kummerow said.


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