Maryland Historical Society names interim director

The cash-strapped Maryland Historical Society, which recently had to trim its museum and library hours to only two days a week, has appointed the head of a Towson-based firm that focuses on making history accessible to the masses as its interim head.

Burton Kummerow, president of Historyworks, Inc., was named to the post Tuesday.

"He reeks of history, from every fiber of his being," MdHS board president Alex G. Fisher said. "He has an undergraduate degree in history, he has a master's in history. He's devoted his entire life to making history interesting and accessible to the public."

Kummerow, 69, founded Historyworks 12 years ago. The company has produced books, TV shows and museum exhibits, all designed to make history more appealing to the general public. It's that sort or relevance, the California native says, that he hopes to bring to the 165-year-old historical society, Maryland's oldest continually operating cultural institution and home to such items as Francis Scott Key's original draft of "The Star-Spangled Banner" and Nipper, the 1,700-pound fox terrier and RCA mascot that stood for years atop a building on Russell Street.

"There've been some difficult things going on, as there are in all cultural agencies," Kummerow said, "But they also have a lot of things going for them, as well. It's the [showcase] of Maryland history, it's been around for 150 years, and it's loaded with incredible material that tells incredible stories.

"By using your imagination," he added, "I think you can steadily bring those things to life for people. That's the business that I am in."

In addition to leading Historyworks, Kummerow has served as the executive director of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, in Frederick, and as executive director of Historic St. Mary's City in Southern Maryland. He is a 1963 graduate of the University of Maryland, College Park.

The society, which underwent a $30 million expansion and renovation in 2003, is under severe financial pressure. The money it gets from state and local coffers has been reduced by about $500,000 over the last three years, Fisher said. Over the past two years, the value of its endowment fund has dropped about $150,000 annually. And for the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2009, money from contributions and memberships was down about $100,000.

Private contributions have risen for the current fiscal year, Fisher said, but not enough to offset other budget shortfalls. The society's current budget is $2.5 million.

"Anytime you go through something like this, you have to sharpen your pencil and your wits, figure out what you are doing that is important, and what may be not as important."

The society also announced this week that former state senator and Anne Arundel County Executive Robert R. Neall would head a planning task force charged with examining the museum and its operations, with an eye toward improving both its efficiency and its popularity.

"I think we have to develop a different business model," Fisher said. "People haven't lost interest in history, but the way you engage that interest is different."

Kummerow, who said he is not a candidate for the permament position, succeeds Robert W. Rogers, who resigned earlier this month to accept a job as an executive with a West Virginia-based non-profit. The MdHS board hopes to name a permanent successor sometime in the second half of 2010, Fisher said.