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Seeking renewed identity, Maryland Historical Society reopens with a new name

Mark Letzer, President and CEO of the Maryland Center for History and Culture (formerly known as the Maryland Historical Society) stands outside the museum, which reopened to the public today. September 12, 2020
Mark Letzer, President and CEO of the Maryland Center for History and Culture (formerly known as the Maryland Historical Society) stands outside the museum, which reopened to the public today. September 12, 2020 (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

Sarah Rodman came to see the monkey dress.

“It’s a really famous dress,” said Rodman, who drove from Silver Spring to see the Givenchy gown owned by Wallis Simpson and donated to the Maryland Historical Society. The white cotton skirt features embroidered monkeys playing musical instruments.

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It’s frivolous, sure, but to Rodman, "It symbolizes the fickle fate of history.” After all, had Edward not abdicated the throne to marry the well-dressed divorcee from Biddle Street, the course of the 20th century could have been very different.

A trip to the museum invites such ponderings.

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After six months closed by the coronavirus, the Maryland Historical Society reopened to the public on Saturday with a new name: The Maryland Center for History and Culture. It marks a new chapter for the 176-year-old institution that predates even the Maryland State Archives. The state archives were actually a spinoff of the Maryland Historical Society, says Mark Letzer, the organization’s CEO and president.

While the old moniker was “noble," Letzer said, it was also limiting. The word “society,” widespread in the 19th century, can come across as elitist. “We wanted people to know immediately that it was a welcoming place, that it was for everyone,” he said.

The Mount Vernon institution shut down in March due to the pandemic and most of its employees began working from home. Months of closure provided the impetus to improve the institution’s online programming, something Letzer says has allowed it to reach people in dozens of countries as well as in Baltimore. Events that were originally set to be in person went online, and museum curators moved an exhibit commemorating the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage online. The response has been overwhelmingly positive; a recent panel on redlining had 1,400 attendees.

Jazlyn Paulino, 10 of Baltimore, looks at a sewing kit from the 1800s that is part of a display of Baltimore Album quilts at the Maryland Center for History and Culture (formerly known as the Maryland Historical Society) which reopened to the public today. September 12, 2020
Jazlyn Paulino, 10 of Baltimore, looks at a sewing kit from the 1800s that is part of a display of Baltimore Album quilts at the Maryland Center for History and Culture (formerly known as the Maryland Historical Society) which reopened to the public today. September 12, 2020 (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

With the rebranding, the Center’s website has gotten an overhaul and new web address. Staff are working to make more of the collections available digitally. "We have 350,000 objects in the museum and 7 million documents, books and photographs in the library," Letzer said. “But people were like, ‘Where are they? We can’t see them.’ ” Highlights include the original manuscript of the Star Spangled Banner, letters from every U.S. president, and the Calvert Papers, a collection of family records discovered buried on an English estate.

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Workers this summer installed an advanced new fire suppression system that uses mist to protect the building’s precious holdings. After a devastating blaze in 2018 destroyed the collection of Brazil’s National Museum, Letzer said he lost sleep worrying about what would happen should a similar fate hit Baltimore. He voiced his concerns in a column for The Baltimore Sun, writing: “Sadly, similar losses could happen here — or anywhere precious collections are housed to preserve a culture and a history.”

Despite the new digital offerings, a few people some welcomed the chance to visit the reduced-capacity museum in person Saturday. Rodman, making her first trip to any museum since fall, was pleased with the social distancing measures in place. “This has been a good introduction for me in terms of being back in public.”

Other visitors included sisters Jazelyn and Yanilet Paulino and Davonte Driskell, who said they live across the street from the Mount Vernon museum but had yet to come inside. Yanilet Paulino took note of safety measures like a new online reservation system and hand sanitizer stations placed throughout the halls. Masks are required.

She also appreciated the craftsmanship on dresses in the Spectrum of Fashion exhibition, which includes items from the institution’s massive collection of historic garments such as Wallis’ gown as well as an elaborate livery cape worn by servants at Towson’s Hampton mansion.

Upstairs, the newly-opened “Flickering Treasures" exhibition, featuring the work of Baltimore Sun photographer Amy Davis, explores Baltimore’s bygone movie theaters. Visitors may wonder if the pandemic will make this pastime truly a thing of the past.

A nearby wing shows off colorful Baltimore album quilts from the 1800s. In the 1940s, Dr. William Rush Dunton, Jr., researched quilting as occupational therapy for the “nervous ladies” who visited him at the Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital. Towards the end, guests can share ways that they’ve found to unwind during quarantine.

And, amid the coronavirus pandemic, the Center continues on with its efforts to collect and preserve history, inviting Marylanders to submit personal stories of how the quarantine has affected their lives.

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