Opinion

Antero Pietila: Baltimore?s history bubble bursts

|
Opinion,Antero Pietila

Other Baltimore museums should take the near-collapse of the venerable Maryland Historical Society as a warning sign to balance their income with their expenses. That is particularly true about the new Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture.

If you missed the story of what happened at MHS, here it is: Less than two weeks after assuming his new position, the society?s executive director from South Carolina, W. Eric Emerson, fired 12 staff members without notice in an effort to erase a $1.2 million budget deficit.

One practical result of this "massacre," as one terminated employee called it, is that one of MHS?s strengths ? genealogy research ? will be more difficult to do. And the dismissal of Robert "Rick" Cottom, Maryland Historical Magazine veteran editor, puts the future of that magazine and the society?s other publications in doubt.

This radical emasculation happened without a warning. "I am appalled," Jerry A. McCoy, an MHS member and a District of Columbia librarian, wrote on the H Maryland Web site, which first broke the story.

I agree. The Maryland Historical Society board and Mr. Emerson must give a full account of how things deteriorated to this point. While many blame Dennis Fiori, who oversaw a $30 million expansion program during his 11 years as the MHS director, the board should not get off the hook. It approved the construction projects at the society?s Monument Street campus, plus the opening of a separate Civil War museum near Little Italy and a maritime museum in Fells Point. The board shares full responsibility for the current crisis.

We have been down this road before.

At the Inner Harbor, the Columbus Center sank, despite substantial federal investments to make it Maryland?s marine biotechnology research hub. The Children?s Museum?s Port Discovery, also nearby, sits on life support. And about a year ago, the Star Spangled Banner Flag House museum terminated executive director Sally Johnston, blaming her for financial difficulties that followed the construction of a $2.4 million annex near Little Italy. The board, of course, authorized that expansion and basked in the glory of publicity at the grand opening.

All those disasters pale in comparison with the 1996 collapse of the City Life Museums, however. Under executive director Nancy Brennan, a daughter of a former U.S. Supreme Court justice, the institution grew into a museum empire that included the Peale Museum, the municipal history depository, and a complex of several buildings on Front Street ? including a theater that was never opened, the Shot Tower and the H.L. Mencken house in West Baltimore?s Union Square.

Predictably, this disaster was blamed on Ms. Brennan. But a less- than-vigilant board rubber-stamped her plans, without recognizing that a board membership is not a mere honor but a mandate for fund-raising.

Which brings us to my worries about the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture. Opened in June 2005, the state of Maryland heavily subsidized its construction and start-up. Most of those subsidies, however, will soon expire. Meanwhile, the museum, struggling to stay on course after a revolving door of directors, has not developed a reliable base of private financial support. Unless that is corrected, it faces an uncertain future in a country where most other African American museums suffer from chronic financial trouble.

One of the fundamental problems is that Baltimore is a branch office town incapable of funding an excessive number of museums with overlapping missions. An example is the maritime park and museum that the nonprofit Living Classrooms Foundation opened this summer in Fells Point. Honoring Frederick Douglass, who worked as caulker on the waterfront during his slave years, it is just a three-minute walk from MHS?s maritime museum. If you visit, you will see that neither of these museums is really worth the admission price. They should be combined.

Mindless museum expansions and overlapping missions must end. Those are the lesson of MHS?s near-collapse.

Antero Pietila is writing a book about how bigotry shaped the Baltimore metropolitan area. His e-mail is hap5905@hotmail.com.
View article comments Leave a comment