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Jacques Kelly: Peale Center shines in a new light

New energy, old-fashioned gas lighting and a mix of private and public funds are helping transform the Peale Center, the 1814 museum building that has reopened after being closed for 20 years.

The scaffolding is still up on the Holliday Street landmark near City Hall, but it now has a new roof and a new purpose — “a platform for creating innovative new ways to experience Baltimore’s history and architecture.”

The building, now open weekends, shut down when funds evaporated in 1997. Those who spent 1960s Sunday afternoons looking at its collection of the curiosities of old Baltimore, such as the cast-iron fire alarm boxes placed in galleries of purple-colored glass, should welcome its return.

“The oldest museum building in the United States and a National Historic Landmark has come back to the cultural landscape of Baltimore,” said James D. Dilts, the Peale Center’s president.

With its pleasantly squeaking wood floors, staircases and elegant rooms, the exhibition hall still delights and charms with its eclectic spirit.

“The Peale Center is one of the opportunities to catalyze the next cultural renaissance in Baltimore,” said Nancy Proctor, the center’s director. “I see our mission as supporting programs that will promote a more culturally aware and inclusive Baltimore.”

In the last few weeks, volunteers transformed the Peale’s garden, a small green space whose brick walls support a collection of sculptural panels rescued from 19th- and 20th-century Baltimore landmarks, including renderings by Grace Turnbull of Roman gods Ceres and Neptune taken from the old Union Bank downtown.

“I see the Peale Center as being a 21st-century collector’s cabinet,” said Lynne Parks, the artist who curated the Peale’s current installation, a thought-provoking exhibit of works by 30 artists called “Birdland and the Anthropocene” that spills over four floors, including the attic. The show explores bird life in the city and details the species that are now extinct. It includes fanciful bird silhouettes and a cabinet of 78-rpm records of bird calls and bird imitations.

“The Peale family were both artists and naturalists,” Parks said. “The exhibition is not all about bird extinction. It’s about the fun and wonder of what birds are. And the Peale Center is a not a typical rectangular galley. It challenges the artists” to create innovative displays.

The Peale has long been a destination for Baltimore’s artists. The works of Aaron Sopher, Herman Maril, Reuben Kramer, Robert Wirth, Keith Martin, Amalie Rothschild, Jacob Glushakow, Joan Erbe, William Steinmetz, Lowell Nesbitt and Glenn Walker all have been exhibited here in the past, and their tradition is now carried on by the city’s new art community.

“If you were a Maryland artist 50 years ago and you had a show at the Peale, it was a big deal,” Dilts said. “We hope to achieve that status again.”

In 1816, the museum’s founder, Rembrandt Peale, illuminated one of his picture galleries with what he described as “pearls of light” — carbureted hydrogen gas.

Old-fashioned gas-lighting fixtures remain, at the entrance and in the garden.

Peale went on to found the Gas Light Company of Baltimore — which eventually became Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. His museum moved in 1830 — and it then became Baltimore’s City Hall.

“Rembrandt Peale brought gas street lighting to the U.S.,” Parks said. “Now we know how problematical it is to migrating birds.”

The renovations at the Peale are about halfway done — the entire project will take more than $5.5 million. Still to come are an elevator and a cafe. The state of Maryland and Baltimore City contributed to it. Its benefactors include private foundations, BGE and SM&P Architects.

The Peale Center, 225 N. Holliday Street, is open from noon to 6 p.m. today and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Sunday. It also open for Doors Open Baltimore, Oct 28, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

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