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The "Mummies" Curse

Teachers Liked It. Kids Loved It. So What Killed the City's Most Popular Partnership Between a Museum and Public Schools? Money, Of Course.

Jefferson Jackson Steele
That's A Wrap: (from left) Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Elementary teacher Victoria Hamilton and Walters Art Museum visiting teacher Sandy Gray are among those lamenting the end of the museum's "Mummies, Manuscripts and Myths" program.

By David Morley | Posted 8/20/2003

The system seemed to be working. But after three years of teaching culture-hungry Baltimore public elementary-school students not just art but also language skills and history, the Walters Art Museum's outreach program, "Mummies, Manuscripts, and Myths," is shutting down, having reached the end of its three-year grant. Despite efforts to find new funds to maintain the art-based education program in four city schools, it met its demise in early June, at the end of the school year. It's just one in a line of arts outreach programs that has faltered in the stressed economy of recent years, but what makes the loss of this one particularly painful is that, unlike many other such projects, "Mummies, Manuscripts, and Myths" was viewed as a success across the board, praised by students, teachers, and museum administrators alike as a concise, dynamic tool for elementary-school students who craved not just hands-on art instruction but also the fundamentals of education that the program provided.

"Mummies, Manuscripts, and Myths" began in 2000 with four teachers employed by the Walters--it would eventually grow to seven--who visited four city schools and conducted weekly 90-minute art classes to second-, third-, and fourth-grade students (Mobtown Beat, Dec. 20, 2000, www.citypaper.com/2000-12-20/mobs. html). The initial funds, $800,000 in all, was seeded by investment firm Deutsche Bank and its local subsidiary Alex. Brown as part of a competition to involve cultural institutions in the city school system. With the money in place, the Walters selected Mount Royal, John Eager Howard, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, and Dallas F. Nicholas elementary schools as its program partners, because of their proximity to the museum, and developed a curriculum around the museum's Egyptian, Greco-Roman, and Asian art holdings.

"Mummies" taught more than art to the program's 1,500-plus children: It was interdisciplinary, using the backbone of art projects, in which students made Chinese scrolls, crafted Egyptian bas-relief tiles, and wrote poetry, to teach them the fundamentals of art history and language skills. After each unit--three per school year--students took field trips to the Walters to see artwork related to the unit, as well as their own artwork on display. The field trip that Mount Royal students took this June proved to be the last in its run, and now all the program's participants are picking up the pieces.

"I'm devastated about this," Mount Royal teacher Jim Ireton says. "It's an absolutely incredible program for these children in terms of their exposure to art and the museum." Ireton also finds himself "scratching his head," trying to find a reason for the loss of funding.

Jackie Copeland, director of education for the Walters, says that from the start the program was considered a three-year test project, and while the museum tried over the past year to secure funds for another year, the program found itself in "a perfect storm of financial disasters." A soft economy made grant money even harder to come by than usual, and when the project's initial investors failed to follow through with help, its fate was sealed.

Though a final report on the program's accomplishments won't be complete until late summer, the elementary-school teachers say they noticed a marked difference in their students during the "Mummies" run, which is perhaps why their regret over the project's end seems to range from disappointment to outrage.

Victoria Hamilton, who teaches second grade at Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, says she is "very disturbed" about the closure, noting that the quarterly trips to the museum were often the children's "only field trip for the year."

While Hamilton's school does have an arts program already in place, it's "nowhere near the 'Mummies' project in terms of supplies," she says, and it's "isolated" as well. The Walters program, she notes, gave kids the opportunity to see the application of art, how it "gives the world as a whole."

In fact, all four of the elementary schools involved in "Mummies" have in-house arts programs of their own, but Baltimore City Public Schools do not place a strong emphasis on arts instruction. Tom Bowmann, director of elementary curriculum instruction for city schools, says the city School Board "expects 45 minutes once a week [to be spent] for arts or music instruction," but does not require arts instruction as it does for reading and math.

Like the elementary-school host teachers, the Walters' visiting teachers are equally upset by the demise of the program. Sandy Gray-Murray, who has been with "Mummies" since its inception, now finds herself looking for new employment and worrying about future classes of kids who won't have the benefits of the "Mummies" project. "It's a loss for these children," Gray-Murray says. "People don't realize the impact that the program is making on [their] lives."

The students themselves have also expressed regrets over the program's collapse. While most wrote letters of thanks at the end of the 2002-'03 school year to their visiting teachers at the Walters, others took the opportunity to write things like, "I am mad because [they] won't let us have art in the 4th grade." Another student said he wished "my mom had money so that she could take me to the Walters Art Museum--we can only look at the building now."

Walters executive director Gary Vikan acknowledges that losing the program is a blow to the museum's commitment to "community and education." "Mummies" was a way for students "not to discover facts, but to create a sense of awe," he says, noting that the idea from the beginning was that artwork could have a "transforming effect in the lives of these students."

Still, the termination of "Mummies" is not unique to the Walters. Several other local arts institutions have suffered similar losses in outreach programs, and the end always seems to come, as it has here, when the program is running at top speed. The Contemporary Museum lost funding for its two-year performance- and visual-art program called "Connecting With the Arts" in 2001; the $100,000 grant from the New York-based Open Society Institute "ran out," says Contemporary interim director Leslie Shaffer, "and we couldn't raise any more money." Likewise, a three-year grant from the Hoffberger Foundation--for the Baltimore School for the Arts' "To Work in Giving Skills Instrumental Music Satellite Program," a project that worked to build music skills in 200 potential School for the Arts students--expired this year.

Teachers and museum administrators alike, then, find themselves on the same bottom line. Ireton, like other teachers, was hoping that while "there was not enough money to do a full year [for "Mummies"], we expected that funding would be found during the fall interim" to continue the program into a fourth year. Gray-Murray, who thought she would help manage "Mummies" in its fourth year, meanwhile, says, "I thought it was going to go on for three months to a year, then I come in and there's no job."

Although the Walters had made tentative plans to continue the program while it looked to public and nonprofit sources such as the city School Board and the National Education Association, as well as private companies like Legg Mason, nothing was successful. And Deutsche Bank did not make good on its pledge to continue supporting the program if it were successful. Three years ago, Deutsche Bank vice president Rohini Pragasam told City Paper: "If we see that we have attained our objectives over the three-year time frame, we'd be more than pleased to continue the program beyond that." Despite this commitment, and despite the acclaim the program has received, Deutsche Bank has not issued any grants to continue funding. The company declined to comment on the "Mummies" program or on Pragasam's earlier commitment.

What remains today of the program's original $800,000 budget will be exhausted by summer's end. That money is earmarked for generating a final report on the program, to be conducted by Annapolis-based Institute for Learning Innovation, which will examine student evaluations and rate the effectiveness of the Walters program.

The teachers, however, don't need a study to know how well the program was working. As Hamilton puts it, "It's always the thing that's working that they want to do away with."

As Vikan points out, however, the frustration that comes with the closing of "Mummies" may simply be the price of running such a successful program, especially when it's done on a test basis. In a day of shriveling budgets and ever-dwindling arts programming in public schools, the better an outreach project is, the more sorely it's missed when the money disappears.

"This happens a lot," he says. "It's a classic case of you do it and you have the pain of having to stop. But I would never not do it."

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