Take a step back to where Baltimore's museums all began


History settled long ago into a comfortable residency at Baltimore's Peale Museum.

The Federal-style Holliday Street building, just north of City Hall, indeed feels like the oldest building constructed as a museum in the Western Hemisphere.

It's one of Baltimore's glories, a cabinet of curiosities full of oddments and surprises, every day and Sunday-only objects, the rare and the common, always reflecting the city's history.

The Peale Museum's latest offering is a new show entitled "Mermaids, Mummies & Mastodons: The Evolution of the American Museum." This is an ambitious exhibit, one that conveys impressions of what museum-going was like some 175 years ago. And the museum building itself is part of the show.

The big news here is that the mighty mastodon is back. The beast (it's actually a reproduction fabricated for the show) is similar to the actual mastodon skeleton exhibited here when Rembrandt Peale opened his "Baltimore Museum and Gallery of the Fine Arts" in 1814. The original was unearthed near Newburgh, N.Y., in the early 19th century. Some of its bones survive and are on exhibit as well.

And, as the show's title implies, there also are sea creatures, mummies, stuffed birds, minerals, portraits, George Washington's ceremonial sash, a fat man in wax, gas lights, Native American Indian artifacts and anything that would have piqued the curiosity of a Baltimorean of the 1810s and 1820s when the museum was one of Baltimore's leading cultural assets.

For all the catalog of curiosities, this is actually a serious show, one that requires diligent reading of panels and descriptions. Throughout the rooms, there is a strong message that museums long have had a role in educating and delighting the public.

One Peale gallery has been given a distinct 1814 feel. The exhibit consumed thousands of National Endowment of the Arts dollars to reconstruct the old-fashioned viewing cabinets that have become otherwise passe in contemporary museum design. Even the mastodon is hung from heavy chains, as it was in 1814. The lighting is electric, but disguised in handsome period gas-style fixtures.

Visitors to this gallery will not find any identification labels because they were not used in that period. Instead, there's a sheet that explains such items as a human head with a horn-shaped tumor extending from the forehead. It's something now seen only in publications sold at supermarket checkout lines.

Peale Museum Curator Richard Flint, who organized the show, traveled far and wide to round up some 300 objects. Some were already on display in Peale's Baltimore museum; others have a close relationship to museum-worthy objects of the 1820s.

The Peale building must have been an imposing structure in the young and frenetic city. By 1820, Baltimore was the third-largest city in the U.S., with a census count of 62,738, trailing behind Philadelphia (108,809) and New York (130,881). The large Peale family had museums in those cities as well. It was a mark of a city that it had a museum, "a place for the muses," as Noah Webster phrased it in his "American Dictionary of the English Language."

The Peales maintained their Holliday Street showplace of freaks and fine art until late 1829, when they sold the building. The next year, it became City Hall. The mayor and City Council reigned here until 1875, then the structure became No. 1 Negro Grammar School. After other uses, it was restored in 1931 as a museum of city history and life.

Over the years, this has been the place to learn about the city's history. The second-floor gallery, with its amethyst-toned windows overlooking Holliday Street, seems ideally suited to this artful conjuring of the past.

This show, which opens Saturday at 225 N. Holliday St., is a thought-inducing exercise in scholarship. Too many people who have visited the National Aquarium and Science Center, or Walters Art Gallery or Baltimore Museum of Art, never have set foot in the Peale Museum. Yet this is where it all began.

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