The day Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan announced the COVID-19 stay-at-home order in March 2020, Baltimore Heritage’s weekly schedule of walking tours to showcase local history came to a halt, but Johns Hopkins, executive director of the historical preservation organization, wasn’t ready to give up on its work.
On that first day, with an iPhone balanced on a precarious stack of footstools, his 15-year-old daughter acting as his film crew and their cat Walker pacing in the background, Hopkins launched “Five Minute Histories,” a series of short videos telling the tales of Baltimore landmarks.
Although neither Hopkins nor his co-worker Molly Ricks, the community engagement and communications manager for Baltimore Heritage, had any experience editing or shooting video, they began producing daily videos for the first three months of the pandemic, cobbling together one-take speeches by Hopkins into produced videos for YouTube and the Baltimore Heritage website.
At first, Hopkins didn’t think much about the mission behind the videos or whether people would watch them, they were simply a way to bide the endless days of uncertainty that defined the start of the pandemic. But within days of the first few posts, the videos began racking up views, comments, and — Hopkins said laughing — many corrections, from Baltimoreans looking to connect from the isolation of their homes.
Viewers began sending in the stories of family businesses and beloved local landmarks, eager to share how their own personal pasts played into the overarching history of the city they loved.
“We are able to reach a lot of people who would not, for whatever reason, be able to come on our in-person tours,” Hopkins said. “They might not be able to do the walking that’s required. They might have grown up in Baltimore but now live in Albuquerque, but they are still a Baltimore lover.
“It only took a couple videos for us to realize how much people wanted to participate and to share.”
Eventually switching to a twice a week schedule and more sophisticated equipment, Baltimore Heritage has published more than 150 videos since the beginning of the pandemic, and the group doesn’t plan on stopping.
The series has covered the history behind well-known Baltimore sites, including the Patterson Park Pagoda and the American Visionary Art Museum. It also delves into more unfamiliar topics like the story of Taylor’s Chapel, a 150-year-old building tucked away inside the Mount Pleasant golf course in North Baltimore.
Hopkins said that people across the country have tuned in and commented on the videos, enjoying Charm City history lessons from their homes.
Ricks said that the goal of the series is to educate viewers on often overlooked parts of Baltimore’s history.
“The most important thing is that we can keep telling stories that have not been told before,” Ricks said.
Ricks, who is also a historian, finds historic images to include in the videos through the Enoch Pratt Free Library’s digitized archives. She often draws from old Baltimore Sun and the Baltimore Afro-American articles for research and visuals.
Although Hopkins hosts the majority of the videos, occasionally another historian or expert will join in to explain a specific neighborhood or unknown part of past city life. Hopkins said that he also receives recommendations from viewers for future video ideas.
“We get lots of suggestions for places to cover as well as people sending in research that they’ve done or images that they have, so it’s kind of become a little bit of a community effort,” Hopkins said.
Ricks said that the series has become popular at local retirement communities and as a tool for educators. While Baltimore Heritage is resuming more in-person programming, she believes the videos still hold value for those interested in learning about Baltimore from home.
“There’s really no competition and it’s different media, different audiences, different goals and objectives,” Ricks said.
Travis Henschen, the dean of student life at Friends School, teaches a class on Baltimore history, and began using the videos last school year as a part of his lesson plans. While he typically brought his students to landmarks across the city during his class, the Baltimore Heritage series took the place of field trips during online learning.
“It covers such a range of topics that it’s been great,” Henschen said. “Perhaps we’re covering a certain topic like the Baltimore fire, and it’s nice to give them some background information.”
The videos also served as a resource for exploring research project ideas. Sophie Bauman, 17, of Bolton Hill, graduated from Friends School last year and participated in a series installment on Hansa Haus, a building near Baltimore’s Inner Harbor which functioned as a hub for German spies during World War I.
Bauman, who is family friends with Hopkins, said that she found the videos an engaging part of virtual learning.
“There’s always a little bit of secondhand embarrassment when it comes to seeing yourself on camera … but I really enjoyed the experience,” she said. “I think the videos are really informative.”