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Mobtown Beat

Back for the Future

New History Group Takes Over Where City Life Museums Left Off

By Brennen Jensen | Posted 5/2/2001

Call it bad timing. In 1997, Baltimore City celebrated its bicentennial--a time to reflect on two centuries of civic history. But this was also the year that the Baltimore City Life Museums, a multisite, history-oriented collection of museums and attractions, went belly-up due to financial shortfalls. The museum's artifacts were given to the Maryland Historical Society, and the buildings and facilities where taken over by the city. (Many, such as the Shot Tower and the H.L. Mencken House, remain shuttered to this day.) Happy 200th birthday, Baltimore.

Much finger-pointing followed the City Life Museums' untimely death, as civic leaders sought answers to how and why the venture had failed. (The general conclusion was that the organization, which opened an $8 million exhibit center in 1996, had expanded too quickly.) But for many active in efforts to preserve and showcase local history, the more pressing question was how to best pick up the pieces and continue to study and promote the city's past.

One answer emerged in March of last year, when a handful of history enthusiasts incorporated the Baltimore City Historical Society (BCHS). While every county in Maryland has its own nonprofit historical society, such a citywide group is a first for Baltimore. The group holds its charter meeting at City Hall on May 8.

"When the Baltimore City Life complex closed, a lot of people in the city who love history were left without a gathering place," says John Carroll Byrnes, president of the fledgling society. "This is the void that we're trying to fill. We have a number of segmental organizations that do an excellent job focusing on particular aspects of city history, but we were left with no organized effort to focus on Baltimore City history as a whole."

Byrnes, a Baltimore City Circuit Court judge who was involved with the creation of the Baltimore Courthouse and Law Museum Foundation, says his group doesn't intend to have its own museum or to duplicate City Life's wide-ranging functions. The society will rely on the Baltimore-based Maryland Historical Society to collect and maintain the city's physical artifacts.

"We think it's enough to create the society as a gathering place for people who care about history, and to be part of the city's cultural life," he says.

Though the society is now more than a year old, Byrnes says its public debut was postponed to allow time for Mayor Martin O'Malley's administration to establish itself. O'Malley is slated to speak at BCHS's charter meeting, and Byrnes has already met with the mayor to discuss, among other things, the society's possible use of the shuttered Peale Museum near City Hall as a home base.

"That historic temple sits there abandoned," Byrnes says. "I toured it last week, and it's in good physical condition. I hope it can be used to a limited degree, even if only for symbolic purposes."

Formerly under the aegis of the City Life Museums, the 187-year-old Peale is the oldest museum building in the country. After City Life's shutdown, then-Mayor Kurt Schmoke tried to convert it into a conference center. Department of Public Works spokesperson Bob Murrow says the facility is in "good shape" but that "nothing is set in stone" regarding its future use.

As an alternative, Dennis Fiori, Maryland Historical Society director, says he might be willing to provide BCHS with office space at his group's midtown campus.

"I don't see them building a competing organization," Fiori says. "Given our statewide scope, we don't have the ability to focus as much attention on Baltimore as we should. We very much support what they're doing."

In lieu of monetary dues, folks wishing to become charter members of BCHS are asked to donate one book about the city's history to the society's library. (BCHS hopes to amass copies of every Baltimore book in print.) Another of the group's aims is to create a Web site to serve as a "clearinghouse" of local historical data and materials. But BCHS' overarching agenda has yet to be established. One goal of the May 8 meeting is to begin establishing committees to guide future development.

"I'm hoping that we succeed in reaching a very diverse constituency and represent our city in some new and interesting ways," says Jessica Elfenbein, BCHS treasurer and a University of Baltimore history professor.

Elfenbein says efforts such as the society's are more than just a hobby: History, she asserts, can help a community establish "pride of place" and serve as a "bedrock for good planning."

"I see history as a tool for community building and change," Elfenbein says. "I don't think the main focus is looking backwards. I think this is about looking forward, with the outcome being that we really improve the quality of life in and around Baltimore."

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