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Filled with firsts, the Peale reopens its historic doors as a community museum

Jeffrey Kent might be the chief curator at the Peale Museum, but as an artist living in Baltimore for more than 40 years, he’s ashamed he only heard about the institution five years ago.

“It needs to be elevated and amplified that we have this jewel of a museum in our city,” Kent, 59, said.

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The Peale preserves Baltimore’s stories through narratives, artwork, in-person exhibits and online experiences. The building located downtown, near Baltimore City Hall, houses 208 years of Charm City history.

“The fact that it’s the first museum in the Western Hemisphere, gas lighting started there; the person that built this museum established BGE. First school for colored students,” said Kent, listing some of the Peale’s highlights.

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Following extensive renovations and 20 years of vacancy, the Peale is gearing up to come back as “Baltimore’s Community Museum.” A $5.5 million capital campaign funded the museum’s five-year renovation and the grand opening Saturday will showcase upgraded digs.

“We are thrilled to be able to honor and uplift the stories and voices of Baltimore’s communities by giving them a home in the nation’s first museum building with its rich and transformative history, now fully restored and accessible to all,” said Nancy Proctor, the Peale’s founding director and chief strategy officer.

“We have an elevator now, the renovations are dope,” Kent added. “It’s a state of the art building now.”

Historically, Baltimoreans gathered, shared culture and made history both inside and outside of its Holliday Street doors.

“The history is astonishing,” Kent said.

Peale Museum founding director and chief strategy officer Nancy Proctor explains a display that recalls the building’s use as Male and Female Colored School No. 1 in the late 1800s.

Rembrandt Peale, painter and son of entrepreneur, artist and gallery owner Charles Wilson Peale, commissioned architect Robert Cary Long Sr. to create what became the first building specifically designed for the purpose of becoming a museum. Previously, museums had been palaces, houses or spaces that were turned into galleries.

“They chose as a model, the federal-style townhouse, and they simply enlarged the rooms,” Proctor said. “These rooms are filled with beautiful natural light, as you would’ve needed in a pre-electric era, especially if you were a painter, as [Peale] was.”

Origin of ‘Light City’

Peale opened his Museum and Gallery of Fine Arts in August 1814 and immediately began selling tickets to pay off debt for the building. Peale’s exhibits featured pieces from artists such as Leonardo da Vinci, a mastodon skeleton and the first use of gas lighting — which was described as a magical “ring of fire”.

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“He built a shed in the back of his museum and started burning pitch to manufacture the gas that powered chandeliers in his museum,” Proctor said. “This meant he could stay open after dark, so he could sell more tickets.”

Baltimore had never seen anything like it.

A large pediment from the First Union Bank Building, built in 1806, was moved to the Peale when the museum’s garden was created during the 1930 renovation.

“They say people who couldn’t afford admission, would come and stand on Holliday Street and stand in front of the building and gaze up at the windows because they’d never seen such bright light coming from inside,” Proctor added.

Peale, an inventor and entrepreneur, joined with a group of investors and founded Baltimore Gas Company in 1816, which later became Baltimore Gas and Electric Company (BGE). The company secured contracts to put gas lights on city streets, making Baltimore the first U.S. city (and one of the first in the world) to have gas-powered street lights, hence the nickname “Light City.”

After the Peale closed in 1829 due to financial troubles, the building reopened in 1830 as Baltimore’s first City Hall.

“When the new City Hall was built in 1875, the city repurposed the building to serve as Male and Female Colored School No. 1,” said Proctor.

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The “Colored” school at the Peale was the first school to offer a secondary curriculum, which was critical for aspiring Black educators because a high school diploma was required to teach.

“So the first Black public-school educated teachers in Maryland learned here at the Peale,” Proctor said.

The historic space went through more iterations, including: housing the Bureau of Water Supply, renting spaces for shops and factories, and in 1931 becoming the Municipal Museum of the City of Baltimore.

In 1985, the museum became part of the Baltimore City Life Museums, comprised of local museums and historic sights that was privatized in 1992. The museum closed in 1997.

Now, the Peale’s staff, supporters and guests describe the museum as a special place for all who walk through its doors.

“It can be this third space, that doesn’t have all the baggage of your work, your home, your school and all these other institutions, largely because it is a space that’s been created by the community— not some authority on high,” Proctor said.

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A community museum

Kent recalled one of his first projects with the Peale — collaborating with photographer and Baltimorean Devin Allen, whose Baltimore protest photos were featured twice in Time Magazine.

“[Allen] expressed the desire to have a solo exhibition, somewhere, informed by gentrification and the stories that are being left behind in these vacant homes in East Baltimore,” Kent said. ”We put together his exhibition called ‘Spaces of the Un-Entitled,’ and it was dope.”

The Peale’s ethos is that the museum doesn’t collect stories. The exhibits and stories belong to the artists and storytellers.

“We tend not to use the word ‘collect,’ because it implies that we own the stories,” Proctor said. “So we gather and we steward stories, but the decision of what happens to those, be they digital, or exhibitions, or live performances, it’s always with the creator.”

Baltimore native Krista Green, the Peale’s chief administrative officer, describes stories as any combination of narratives, novels, poems, spoken word, visual arts and music performances.

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“One of the things we definitely don’t try to do is, assume what shape a narrative is going to take or how it’s going to come to Peale,” Green, 50, said. “We’re not there to assign a value to something — say ‘Yes, it’s worthy’ or not. We see our role as a facilitator and as advocates, that’s very important to us.”

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The Peale Museum on Holliday Street occupies the first building in the United States to be designed and built specifically as a museum. It is ready to reopen after a $5.5 million renovation.

Baltimoreans play a major role in the Peale’s exhibits and stories.

“It doesn’t take a lot of bureaucracy to start a project or complete a project. We move fairly fast on projects from inception to completion,” said Kent, who emphasizes he is an artist first and chief curator second. “We elevate Baltimore-based artists’ stories.”

When the Peale has its grand opening, the museum will showcase the renovations with a free, festivity-filled day from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, including entertainment from the Dan Meyer Choir and a praise song from Mama Linda Goss for the Peale’s garden. A ceremonial replica ring of fire will be lit in honor of Peale’s original innovation.

Exhibits will include “Spark: New Light Exhibition” with creations by 24 Towson University and UMBC artists; “Peale Faces” by Lauren Muney, featuring hundreds of custom silhouettes of Baltimoreans; and “Hostile Terrain,” a participatory art project organized by the Undocumented Migration Project that opened in May, paused during the renovations and officially closes Aug. 26.

The next Peale exhibit won’t be all on Kent to decide as chief curator.

“A big part of the programming year comes to us through our creative collaborators in Baltimore City, and I think that is a special niche to fill,” Green said.


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