My Wishes for the Museums of Baltimore

This is the second of several posts with suggestions for the museums of the cities I have called home.  I first posted these in the summer of 2010; this series of posts features some updated information and additional suggestions.  

Although less than an hour from the US capital, Washington, DC, Baltimore—the town where I was born and raised—is not only a physically separate city, it’s culturally separate, too.

Where Washington has primarily served as a government town and now has industry (nearly all service and defense-related) that emerges from government, Baltimore was a port town with heavy industry, though both have diminished in importance in recent decades and, as the civil service outgrows Washington, has attracted some agencies, such as Social Security.

That industrial wealth initially funded Baltimore’s cultural institutions, which include two world-class art museums, a public library system, and a history museum, as well as the more recent  National Aquarium, Museum of Science, Museum of Visionary Art, and the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History.

Baltimore also has had a series of smaller museums that preserve pieces of Baltimore’s working class and everyday heritage, including its Museum of Industry, and closed City Life Museums and Museum of Public Works (closed in the past year due to a city budget crisis).

What’s special about these museums is that, although they’re world class, they emerge from the community that hosts them.  For example, Baltimore has a large African American population, so a museum of African American history is organic to the community.  Baltimore has a working class history, and a museum of industry honors that history.  And Baltimore is not just a port town; the harbor, river, and the Chesapeake Bay into which it flows are all integral parts of the area. The Aquarium honors the role of the maritime in the life of the region.

For Baltimore, the ideal is bringing the museums lost to bankruptcy and budget cuts back to life, while remaining true to their spirit and the stories they tried to tell.  In addition, such a museum must be located in a place where it is likely to attract many visitors—and contributors.

That museum might be a Museum of the Baltimore Spirit, which—like its name suggests—celebrate the spirit of the city.  Taking a lead from the approach taken by the Minnesota Historical Society, but focusing on a city rather than a state—this museum would have two permanent exhibits.  And as the Minnesota Historical Society has two permanent exhibits, so would this museum.  One would introduce local culture, but rather than taking the A to Z approach that the Minnesota center takes, this one might take a neighborhood-by-neighborhood approach and, in the process, celebrate the histories of the many ethnic groups that comprise the local culture.  The second permanent exhibition would present a chronological history of the city.  But rather than a large board of dates and events, perhaps this one would provide a walk through the history of the city.  A third gallery would present temporary exhibitions that would explore themes in the life of the city.  Some could be upbeat, such as the role of sports teams in civic pride. Some would be critical, exploring social changes and their effect on the landscape of the city.

Location would be an essential part of this story.  One possibility is housing this museum in the Inner harbor, which hosts many of the other museums and attractions in the citywould take a chronological approach.  Indeed, it could be used to revive the sagging Gallery and Harborplace malls.

But another possibility is to locate this elsewhere, near another cultural institution like the Museum of Art or the Baltimore Zoo, to create a new cultural hub and bring visitors and the related economic impact to other parts of town.  Should such an approach be taken, quick access to the city’s Metro system would be essential to the success of the institution.

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