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Lewis Museum celebrates 10th anniversary Thursday

The Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year with cake, ice cream, live music — and a brand-new, free exhibition space.

The roughly 1,000-square-foot gallery called Lewis Now will exhibit documents and objects related to contemporary issues. It opens July 10 with a show by Devin Allen, the West Baltimore resident whose photo of a man running in front of a line of police officers during the Freddie Gray unrest made the cover of Time magazine in May. After construction is completed, the public will have access to the entire first floor, which also includes the cafeteria and gift shop. Regular admission fees of $6-$8 will be required to see the rest of the exhibit area.

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The striking red, black and yellow building at Pratt and President streets has roughly 83,000 square feet and was built at a cost of $34 million. It opened to great fanfare on June 25, 2005.

The Lewis has a budget of $4 million. When the current fiscal year ends June 30, about 30,000 visitors will have walked through the museum's doors. An additional 8,800 users have visited Lewis' website or Facebook page since May 1.

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After "Devin Allen: Awakenings, in a New Light" closes Dec. 7, the Lewis Now gallery will showcase exhibits mounted by shelters for abused women, food pantries and other community groups.

"We see this as a public engagement area, and we're really excited about it," says A. Skipp Sanders, the museum's executive director. "The new gallery gives us a chance to interact with the public in a closer and more personal way than we've been able to do before."

The museum's staff is commemorating the 10th anniversary with an open house Thursday. Visitors can enjoy birthday cake and ice cream while listening to the music of the Dunbar Jazz Ensemble. On that day, the public also can tour the entire five-floor museum for free.

In November, the museum will hold a ticketed gala featuring an open bar, dancing and live entertainment provided by Ellis Marsalis Jr., a pioneering jazz pianist and the father of legends Branford and Wynton Marsalis.

In the midst of preparation for the open house, Sanders paused to reflect on highlights of the museum's first decade:

Exhibits: The Lewis' inaugural show was "The Wreck of the Henrietta Marie," a traveling exhibit of artifacts taken from a slave ship that sank off the coast of Florida.

"People had just a huge response to that," Sanders says.

Other popular exhibits included "Material Girls," a 2011 exhibit featuring eight contemporary female African-American artists; the Kinsey Collection exhibit in 2013, which showcased one of the largest privately owned collections of African-American art; and "For Whom It Stands," an exhibit last summer on the mixed legacy of the American flag.

Community programs: More than 1,000 people flocked to the Lewis during the 2013 holiday season to meet Maulana Karenga, who created Kwanzaa, the seven-day family celebration rooted in African traditions.

Sanders also was heartened by the enthusiastic response to the museum's community roundtable discussion "Healing Beyond Ferguson," held Jan. 19, the holiday commemorating the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday.

These programs were well-attended, Sanders says, because they had an immediate impact on people's lives.

"For the past five to seven years, we've been involved in strategically planning where the museum should go next," Sanders says. "The concept of relevance keeps coming up."

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Education: About 720 youngsters attended the third annual African-American children's book fair at the museum May 9.

For Sanders, the festival is an antidote to troubling statistics indicating that just about 5 percent of the books published in 2014 by mainstream publishers featured a major character who was African-American.

"The kids get so excited when they get to pick from these fantastic texts" written by and about people who look like them, he says.

In addition, the museum has been working with the Maryland State Department of Education to develop a curriculum for teaching African-American history to students from the fourth grade through high school. There are 104 lessons so far — and the curriculum is growing.

It has been a mammoth undertaking, but Sanders thinks the lessons will make a difference in the way Baltimore's schoolchildren come to understand "this vital and integral part of American history."

If you go

The Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture's 10th birthday open house will be held from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday at the museum, 830 E. Pratt St. Free. Call 443-263-1800 or go to lewismuseum.org.

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