It's the noon hour and about 45 people of all ages have gathered in a second-floor meeting room at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture to hear a talk by a woman named Esther McCready.
One flight up, in the museum's extensive permanent exhibit space, a display case contains memorabilia of the same Esther McCready, including a yearbook from the 1950s that describes her as "small and quiet."
She's still just as diminutive and soft-spoken today. And just as historic.
"It's amazing that this poor girl from Baltimore made history," McCready says of her experience as the first African-American student admitted — after a court challenge — to the University of Maryland School of Nursing in 1950.
She describes the hostile reception on the first day; the doctor who taught classes with his back toward her ("I thought, well, I can still hear you," she says with a little laugh); the way school officials turned an office into a place for her to live, rather than let her have a dorm room with the other students. She talks, too, of ignoring the roadblocks ("I was not going to be sick from holding negative thoughts"), persevering in her studies and enjoying a long career.
Seeing McCready at the podium drives home the significance of the Lewis Museum, a place where the past isn't just preserved, but is very much alive, still informing and enriching the present, still pointing the way to a more enlightened future.
On Sunday, the institution wraps up a week of celebrating its fifth anniversary with a family day that includes a genealogy starter session, typical of community outreach activities presented at the museum throughout the year.
The annual calendar also includes temporary projects that complement the permanent collections, including a major retrospective on celebrated artist Romare Bearden's graphic works earlier this year and the current exhibition, "Beyond Swastika and Jim Crow: Jewish Refugee Scholars at Black Colleges," which runs through Sept. 26.
The $34 million Lewis Museum opened on June 25, 2005, at Pratt and President streets, making its presence felt instantly with a vibrant exterior that uses the colors of the state flag. Designed by architects Gary Bowden of RTKL Associates in Baltimore and Philip Freelon of the Freelon Group in Durham, N.C., the 82,000 square-foot, five-level building is the second-largest African-American heritage museum in the country.
"By 2015," says Executive Director David Taft Terry, "there will be a museum of African-American culture and history in [ Prince George's] County and a museum of African-American culture and history on the National Mall. I don't see it as competition at all. The museums will be similar, but distinct. The more the region becomes known for its museums of African-American history and culture, the better we'll all be. I see it as really helping us with audience development."
Boosting attendance and recognition for the Lewis Museum is a top priority for Terry, 40, who started as director of collections and exhibitions and was named executive director when the original top administrator left to pursue a business interest nine months after the building opened.
"After all the confetti fell, there was a period of adjustment that the museum would have to endure," Terry says. "The board was in transition, and so was the staff. We needed to find our footing. It was quite fuzzy for a while, until 2007. But looking at this fifth anniversary as a time to pause and reflect, I'm proud of what we've done."
The museum, with a full-time staff of about 25 and an endowment of $6 million, has had a budget of between $4 million and $4.5 million since its first year, Terry says. He credits "our friends and supporters" with stepping up with increased contributions to help maintain that budget during the economic downturn.
One important number has been on a downward trajectory at the museum since 2005 — attendance.
"Our first year, there were more than 100,000 visitors," Terry says. "The decline has been steady since then. My guess is we will have 40,000 for this fiscal year. Audience development had not been a priority at the beginning. I think there was probably a 'build it they will come' feeling that first year. We're confident we're moving in the right track now, but it's frustrating. I want to see jam-packed galleries."
Terry had a telling encounter recently at the ballpark. While waiting to throw out the first pitch at an Orioles game, he was recognized by a man who spoke glowingly of the museum. Terry asked the man when he had last paid a visit: It was in 2005, for the grand opening.
"I think people feel good that there is this museum here," Terry says. Getting them to take advantage of it is another matter.