Memory Loss

Why Baltimore's Heritage Is Worth Preserving

by Paul Cané

A FRIENDLY WAGER. First, list three things wrong with Baltimore. Second, name three things Baltimore has to be proud of. A cheeseburger at Alonso's says that the first was easier than the second.
Face it, the contributions of H.L. Mencken, Thurgood Marshall, or the B&O Railroad are far from your mind when faced with some of the problems that Baltimore seems to possess in abundance. Crime, loss of jobs, racial tension-the list is so familiar as to not merit repetition.
It's also likely that when you are compelled to think about the shining moments of this city's past it serves only to remind you of how far we've fallen. Baltimore isn't the city it once was, and our instinct for nostalgia makes the parade of bad news all the more difficult to bear.
Yet Baltimore has 28 heritage museums, including such offbeat sites as the Baltimore Museum of Legal History, the National Museum of Dentistry, and the Mount Vernon Museum of Incandescent Lighting.
The city is in the midst of a massive promotion of the bicentennial of Baltimore's incorporation as a city. This year-long celebration consists of a dizzying array of public events, neighborhood festivals, commemorations, and educational programs.
Twenty eight heritage sites? A year-long birthday party? Isn't that a bit excessive? The answer from Baltimore's heritage community is a forthright no. Historic sites and celebrations, they point out, are exceptional economic assets, unequaled educational resources, and unique archives of a community's experience. As we reflect on our first 200 years, they say, Baltimore must realize that a city with no pride in its past can never muster the confidence to take a step into the future.
Pride in one's home can't be mandated, but it can be encouraged and supported, and this is where heritage institutions and celebrations serve their subjects best. To meet that goal, Baltimore's heritage institutions must convince the city's residents that they are neither prohibitively expensive nor culturally irrelevant.


Heritage museums, like art museums, face the problem of being perceived as institutions developed by and for the cultural elite, and this carries with it a perception of being expensive to maintain. This is understandable, given the value of many of the items on display, but for the most part this perception is mistaken. Most acquisitions at historical museums are donations from private or public sources provided to the museums as a means of preserving the items and giving the public the opportunity to view them in the proper cultural context. Administrative and other costs are generally met through membership fees, admission fees, and donations from philanthropic groups and foundations.
What municipal funding there was is drying up, and many museums are adapting well to the change. Jamie Hunt, marketing and public relations manager for the Baltimore City Life Museums, describes the challenges his institution faces as direct support from the city diminishes. "Historians tend to be inward-looking folks, not fund-raisers, but we have to accept that the government won't be there any longer. It's our job to make the case to donors."
Funding for specific events tends to be more forthcoming. Baltimore Bicentennial Celebration, Inc. (BBCI), the group planning and managing the city's year of birthday celebrations, has an impressive funding plan involving commercial sponsorships, licensing agreements, foundation grants, merchandising, and event ticket revenue. In one innovative approach, prominent donors are being offered the opportunity to be included in an archival chronicle which will be sealed in a time capsule to be opened at the city's tricentennial. One must admire the volition of a group selling ad space a century beforehand.
The costs of such large-scale heritage projects must be measured against the economic benefits they bring to an area, and historic museums are clearly cost-effective. Tourism is the second largest contributor to Maryland's economy, and the fastest-growing portion of the tourist population is what has been termed "heritage tourists"-those travelers who are interested in a particular facet of history and visit a location specifically to explore that site's role in their favorite type of history. There are Civil War tourists, medical history tourists, sports history tourists, and so on. They typically travel to a location to visit a specific site, but almost inevitably stay to visit other, related sites.
Beth Nowell, president of the Maryland Association of History Museums and a passionate believer in the drawing power of heritage sites, hopes to see a coordinated effort between local agencies and heritage museums to attract just such visitors. Baltimore's museums "must celebrate what is unique and local in an era of mass culture," Nowell says. "We're rich in history, but we haven't learned to use that tool as effectively as, for instance, our neighbors in Philadelphia have."
The economic benefit of maintaining Baltimore's heritage is illustrated also by a program funded by the state legislature this session. The Heritage Preservation and Tourism Program will allow the Maryland Heritage Areas Authority (MHAA) to designate two regions of the state as "Heritage Areas" each year. These areas will be eligible to receive many benefits through MHAA, including tax credits for renovation of historic buildings, direct funding from MHAA for implementation of a strategic management plan, and eligibility for bond financing. Baltimore has preserved an almost unprecedented amount of historic architecture in neighborhoods throughout the city, and acceptance of a Baltimore City Heritage Area plan would provide these neighborhoods the opportunity to benefit through commercial revitalization and an increased sense of pride in their community and the city as a whole.


Economic benefit alone does not make an institution an asset to its location. Liquor stores bring money into a neighborhood; that doesn't mean we should patronize one every day. One unique benefit of heritage institutions is their unequaled educational potential. The experience of connecting directly with history affects a student in ways that a book or a video never can.
Take the story Suzanne Rosenblum relates concerning a student viewing Francis Scott Key's manuscript for "The Star Spangled Banner" at the Maryland Historical Society, where Ms. Rosenblum serves as director of education. Noting the handwritten corrections visible on the manuscript, one student got his teacher's attention and pointed, "See! He's gotta cross things out too!"
"At that moment," Ms. Rosenblum recalls, "He saw that people in history make mistakes, just like him. That's a lesson he couldn't get anywhere else."
Baltimore's history museums utilize some of the most innovative educational programs in the country, programs like the Maryland Historical Society's "On The Streets-A Look at My Neighborhood." This project asked students of Diggs-Johnson Middle School to go out into their neighborhood and interview long-time residents about the changes the area had gone through over the years. Janet Surrett, youth and family programs specialist at the Society, recalls that the program "gave [the students] a chance to see that they're a part of the neighborhood's history, that history is all around them."
One of the most fascinating educational programs in the city is the Baltimore Museum of Industry's The Cannery. This award-winning exhibit is a scaled-down version of the former Platt Oyster Cannery, where the Museum now makes its home. In this safe, miniature factory, fourth and fifth grade students assume the identities of skilled and unskilled workers in the real 1882 Platt Cannery. Students play every role-from loaders, shuckers, and can-makers up to portraying Mr. Platt himself. Switching roles halfway through the program, the students learn about the interconnectedness of various industries and tasks, and the hierarchy of labor in the workplace.
The "shuckers" pry open fake oysters with the foreman staring over their shoulder. "Mr. Platt" totes around his clipboard, encouraging his laborers to work harder if they want a raise.
At the end of the program students are paid in tokens, redeemable at the company store-after paying for food, clothes, and housing, of course. In this final exchange, students learn about the value of a day's work, often to their surprise. On a recent tour, a girl whose tokens had all gone to housing looked imploringly at her mother, who was serving as a chaperone on the tour.
"Mom," she said, "I don't have anything left," the girl said, but after a pause added, "I sound like you."
"Oh, that happens all the time," says Helynn Garner, director of public affairs at the museum, "That's something you can't teach them at school. Sure, it's fun, but it's edu-cation, not edu-tainment."


Heritage institutions and celebrations like the Bicentennial are clearly both economic and educational assets, but to claim that these are the sole values of such attractions is to miss the essential mission of museums and heritage celebrations. Museums don't exist to draw tourists. Baltimore's Bicentennial is not an effort to sell ad space. They both have a more ephemeral, and more important goal: to remind Baltimoreans of who they are individually, and to remind the city of its identity as a community. Three brief anecdotes:
  • A well-dressed woman with perfect white hair turns a corner at the City Life Museums and stops in her tracks. "Oh my," she whispers, "This is my mother's kitchen." Stepping tentatively toward the wooden icebox, she points. "This is where my brother would put the block of ice."
  • A group of elderly men, many in wheelchairs, are being led through the Museum of Industry. They're grumpy and silent, uneasy at being out of the nursing home. At a display of early electric tools, one of the men recognizes an item and comments on how the tool made his work easier. Another disagrees. A third offers his opinion. Soon the men are arguing and laughing with the vitality of the strong working men they know they still are inside.
  • Two African-American children, brother and sister, stand in the basement servant's room at the 1840 House. The servant's straw mattress is stowed on top of a stack of barrels, and her meager possessions fit into one small chest. Opening the chest, the guide withdraws a replica of the woman's manumission script, her "freedom papers." As the paper is passed around, the two children stare together at the parchment, knowing that, regardless of her situation, this free black woman possessed something that thousands of her race would never know.
Family memories, generational memories, even the memories of entire peoples-these three varieties of identification are part of what museums preserve, and what the Bicentennial Celebration seeks to honor, and with good reason. Those who see themselves reflected in Baltimore's history feel a connection to the city and are more likely to take an interest in its future.


The central theme of the Bicentennial Celebration is one of reconnection. Larry Gibson, co-chair of BBCI, exudes pride and excitement when describing his vision of the upcoming events. "This party is primarily for Baltimoreans, past and present," he says. "We'd love for folks to come back and visit their old neighborhoods. It's a real chance to reconnect."
The scope and nature of the events the group has planned bears this out. All across the city there will be rededication ceremonies for dozens of Baltimore's many monuments, accompanied by neighborhood block parties planned with local community leaders. Celebrants may wish to pick up a "Pastport," a booklet for collecting stamps from historical sites around the city. Once the booklet is filled, the holder will be eligible for prizes. In this way, people are encouraged to diversify their sightseeing tours, and gain a broader perspective on the city's achievements and unique personality.
But the most fascinating component of the celebration will be the Homecoming Center at the City Life Museums. The Center will feature a massive, user-friendly database containing genealogical data on the countless individuals and families who entered the U.S. through Baltimore's port-second only to Ellis Island as a point of entry into the country. The very nature of the Homecoming Center serves as a strong reminder of both our diverse backgrounds and our common bond as newcomers to this land.
Baltimore's museums are equally determined to tell the stories of everyday Baltimoreans. The City Life Museums contain such seemingly inconsequential artifacts as a "Nuke Irsay" bumper sticker to a fully recreated and functioning White Tower coffee shop. These items are part of this city's fabric-to deny their value is to deny the lives of those who found meaning in them.
As another group of of students files into the Museum of Industry, Helynn Garner puts it in concrete terms: "People need museums they can relate to." She points at the students. "We're giving them their history."
Self-knowledge, whether personal or communal, is little more than trivia if it is not applied. We may indeed find ourselves and we may find our community in history, but the only important test is what we do with that knowledge, what we learn from the perspective that history affords.


On the most basic level, an historical perspective allows civic leaders to examine how municipal and societal problems were handled in the past-which approaches succeeded and which failed. But the long view of Baltimore's past can also provide a sobering perspective on many of the city's present-day problems. Racial divisions? Not so long ago African-Americans and Jewish immigrants were prohibited by law from living in certain areas of the city. Population flight? Ask Jamie Hunt about the panic of officials in 1818 as the city's affluent population fled the city for the suburbs north of Boundary Road-North Avenue today.
These are what Larry Gibson calls "the concrete lessons of the past," and what Janet Surrett believes to be among the most vital lessons that history can teach. "You can see that, in some ways, things were worse," she says, "That perspective is important."


In spite of the city's missteps, it's hard to study Baltimore's past and not feel both pride and hope for the future. This is the flip side to all those dark stories-Baltimore has repeatedly emerged from crises stronger than before. Twice devastated by fire, the city rebuilt itself both times. And twice the city has undergone a major economic realignment and emerged as a stronger economic entity than before.
Beyond the specific lessons one can learn from the city's past, only an historical perspective can teach a city about its nature, its personality. This broader picture of the city is one that today seems sadly unappreciated. The tragedy of this ignorance is particularly deep because it breeds in residents the belief that Baltimore's personality is unfit to deal with contemporary problems, when in fact Baltimore's true personality is ideally suited to face these exact challenges.
Take, for example, three hot concepts from the civic planning community: diversity, innovation, and global economy.
Long before multiculturalism became the rage, Baltimore was an ethnically diverse city, with the largest population of free blacks in pre-civil war America. Poles, Italians, and Russian Jews all entered the country through our port and made their home in Baltimore, working with each other in the same mills, factories and canneries as the city's long-term residents.
Helynn Garner, whose Museum of Industry Cannery exhibit explicitly includes the race and religion of the characters whose roles are assumed by participants, takes pride in this lesson. "Baltimore was always a diverse city. An inclusive, collective history will teach that."
Larry Gibson loves to point out another part of the city's character that is often overlooked. "Baltimore has always been both innovative and conservative, both Northern and Southern." This is the sort of mix that Atlanta used effectively during its recent revitalization, but it has always been a part of Baltimore.
The formal slogan for the Bicentennial Celebration is "Baltimore-America's City of Firsts", and BBCI puts out a bimonthly publication cataloging the hundreds of world and national firsts which took place in Baltimore. This list is being updated throughout 1997 and includes such categories as commerce, medicine, religion, and architecture. A quick browse though this list will be certain to quiet those who assert that this city has always been a follower, and never a leader.
Finally, Baltimore was and is a city with strong ties to the global economy. From shipping wheat and tobacco in the early 19th century to the bustling ports of fifty years ago, Baltimore's harbor has been an efficiently managed and strategically placed point of entry for world trade. As trade barriers fall worldwide, international shipping is likely to remain a steady industry for the city, and this will keep Baltimore among those cities most suited to profiting from a global marketplace.
Beth Nowell sees considerable potential in Baltimore's overlooked international ties. "Baltimore was always a multicultural city and a global city," she says, "and we still have both aspects."
One does not find pessimists among Baltimore's historians. These are people who know the city well enough to understand that we've faced and conquered problems much more daunting than the ones we confront today. The most vital mission of our museums and celebrations like the Bicentennial is to convey this simple fact to those who see the city as a community in decline. Only by accomplishing this will the city's museums move from being simply warehouses of nostalgia to being a libraries of experience, libraries that may hold the key Baltimore's future.
Larry Gibson, a man of boundless enthusiasm for Baltimore's future, sees appreciation of Baltimore's past as key to the city's future. "A city that has a good sense of itself is better fit to face the future. A city has to know itself. The whole world will be looking backward in 1999, but we'll be looking ahead because we will have been through the introspection."
Perhaps Jamie Hunt says it best. Sitting at his desk at the City Life Museums, surrounded by posters advertising the Homecoming Center and photos of three generations of his family, he looks out at the city skyline. "We're not here because people remember," he says, "We're here because people forget."

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This story was published on May 7, 1997.