Why City Life Museums Deserves Our Support

by Andrew Reiner

If things seem blue at the Baltimore City Life Museums these days it isn't out of sadness; it's because administrators are holding their breath. The past 14 months have been an emotional roller coaster at the museum that interprets the city's history and culture.
It began late in 1995 with the sudden resignation of Nancy Brennan, the museum's charismatic executive director of 15 years, who turned over the reins to Assistant Director John Durel.
Then, following 10 years of planning and dreaming, and prayers for higher attendance, the museum finally opened its newest site last April, the Morton K. Blaustein City Life Exhibition Center. Sighs of relief were audible as museum attendance doubled.
But as soon as the rejoicing began it ended. Less than a year after the new building has opened, museum attendance is shy by 70,000-the number of additional visitors museum officials say would guarantee financial stability. This huge gap in actual visitors has led to a series of crippling setbacks. Over the past eight months six employees were let go due to poor finances, including an administrator who started BCLM's nationally acclaimed living history program. And in December the museum's advisory board replaced Durel because they felt he wasn't marketing-savvy enough to increase ticket sales.
Now the institution is waiting to exhale as it faces its toughest crisis yet-either receive a much-needed loan for an undisclosed amount of money from City Hall or risk closing three of its eight sites.
Despite BCLM's looming problems and the fact that the city already foots $837,000 of the museum's $2.8 million annual budget, City Hall shouldn't have to think twice about its next step. The Baltimore City Life Museums is an institution that this city cannot afford to lose. For many reasons, it must afford to keep it.
No institution in town serves as a better repository for Baltimore's celebrated past. The new building's exhibit "What Makes Baltimore Bawlamer," for example, reveals how seemingly random objects, groups and events, such as blue crabs, arabbers and the 1969 Orioles, have shaped local identity into what it is today. But BCLM does not merely revel in the romanticism of our past. As early as 1986 BCLM was perhaps the first to unmask the city's true past-the celebrated, well-polished moments as well as the blemished ones.
Back then the museum began presenting this warts-and-all approach with its living history dramas called "Steps In Time," which have employed local actors, especially students, and playwrights to re-create the historical cultural collisions that forged this city. Past performances have included a look at tensions during the 1840s between Irish immigrants and free blacks for jobs and a religious riot between Protestants and Catholics.
Perhaps the museum's greatest accomplishment in presenting a balanced story has been one of its newer, well-received exhibits, "I Am the City." Ironically, this exhibit almost deteriorated into the museum's most infamously publicized. When curators were still designing this exhibit, which includes a section about heated demonstrations in front of White Tower restaurants during the 1950s to protest segregation, news of this exhibit stirred incendiary feelings among many African Americans. Much of the outrage stemmed from reading about a publicized party BCLM had had to honor waitresses who worked for White Tower and provided oral histories for the exhibit.
In response to the uproar, which included editorials, museum officials contacted these individuals, explained that both sides of the issue would be presented in the exhibit and asked if the activists would help provide information about their own painful experiences with White Tower. This unlikely partnership dramatically altered the exhibit's content and spurred one African-American woman who has served as an advisor for many cultural arts organizations to say that no other museum in Baltimore has done "a better job of seeking out and integrating the African-American voice and perspective than the Baltimore City Life Museums."
The least publicized, but one of the most important, contributions that BCLM has made for Baltimoreans is its "Community Gallery." This small wing of the City Life Exhibition Center presently displays an unusual exhibit on the lives and culture of people who live in neighboring Jonestown that many of us from the surrounding suburbs might find enlightening. This collection of black and white photographs, taken by neighborhood middle schoolers, is actually a series of visual essays that take us inside the homes, churches, stores and lives of this largely African-American, impoverished community in the projects. While this is a community teetering on violent, despairing implosion, the indelible images reveal a playful, familiar humanity that will surprise those who never thought that Kodak moments could exist amidst such urban blight.
As contradictory and unsettling as these images are, they are exactly what the Baltimore City Life Museums hopes will gnaw at our conscience. Yes, the museum has an agenda. And it's a good thing that it does. Because at a time when we can't find answers to city-wide problems like rampant violence and crime and white corporate flight because we are balkanizing ourselves racially and ethnically, BCLM steps forward offering a white flag and a few suggestions.
The keys to our future, says the museum, are in the past-not only the good old days but the ones when injustices like segregation nearly tore a city apart. Our identity as a city was, and will continue to be, born out of conflict and tension between opposing groups. We must learn to accept conflict as a painful but necessary stage in our evolution as a city; rather than unraveling us, conflict helps weave the tapestry of our shared identity.
But, BCLM cautions, we can only advance forward and find solutions to citywide conflicts if we learn to compromise our many identities for the sake of one. This is the message from our past that can guide our future. If City Hall turns its back on BCLM now, then it is turning its back on a humane, hopeful legacy for our city's future.

Andrew Reiner teaches English at a local private school.

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This story was published on February 6, 1997.