New life for City Life exhibit Art: The Maryland Historical Society mounts an overview of the collection that was shuttered last year.


On May 22, 1865, Asia Booth Clarke wrote a letter to a friend about the death of her brother. "The sorrow of his death is very bitter but the disgrace is far heavier," she wrote. Her brother was John Wilkes Booth, who a few weeks earlier had assassinated Abraham Lincoln and is buried in Baltimore's Green Mount Cemetery.

The letter is one of the more interesting items in the well-meaning but uneven exhibit "Celebrating the Baltimore City Life Collections" that opens at the Maryland Historical Society today at 5 p.m. The show, a potpourri of everything from fine arts to hair dryers, contains about 160 items from the now-closed Baltimore City Life Museums.

When the BCLM closed last June due to financial problems, there was uncertainty about what would happen to its collection pertaining to Baltimore's history. In December came the announcement that the collection would go to the Maryland Historical Society, and it is being moved gradually to the MHS' Monument Street complex. Meanwhile, the current show is designed to give some idea of the scope of the collections and of how they reflect local history.

It is a difficult task, since the collection is vast. It includes 530,000 archaeology objects (mostly shards) and about 140,000 other items. Among the latter are 125,000 photographs, 6,000 three-dimensional objects from furniture and silver to appliances and toys, 1,600 historical prints, 398 paintings including 58 paintings by members of the Peale family of artists, and 5,600 pieces of ephemera from postcards to Asia Booth Clarke's letter. Wisely, the organizers decided to bypass shards and select from other areas.

Though the show has four sections, it's basically divided into two parts, one centered on the Peales and the other on Baltimore history. The first, and much the better, springs from the Peale Museum, the oldest part of the BCLM. It was opened in 1814 by Rembrandt Peale, one of the Peale dynasty of artists and son of the dynasty's founder, Charles Willson Peale.

Like his father's museum in Philadelphia, Rembrandt's specialized not only in art but in the wonders of nature and science. In addition to 25 paintings by Peale family members including Charles Willson, Rembrandt, Raphaelle, Sarah Miriam and Titian Ramsay, this section includes a replica of a prehistoric mastodon exhumed by Charles Willson in Newburgh, N.Y. in 1801 and his painting of the event.

It also includes a device for generating static electricity and a catalog of an 1823 exhibition of art from local collections purporting to include works by "Breughel," "Gainsborough" and "L. da Vinci." They were a little loose about attributions in those days.

This part of the show gives a necessarily brief but enlightening glimpse into the early history of the Peale Museum.

The other part of the show, dealing with Baltimore history from the 18th century to the present, looks familiar. It uses the scatter-shot, fragmented, once-over-lightly and ultimately boring approach the BCLM used so unsuccessfully in its Blaustein City Life Exhibition Center, which opened in April of 1996 and closed with the rest of the BCLM last year.

The three sections of this part of the show deal with early Baltimore to 1870, from 1870 to 1930, and from 1930 to the present. Each section attempts to touch a lot of bases, so nothing gets more than passing treatment. Some important aspects of the city's history get virtually overlooked, and there's a tendency to over-emphasize popular culture.

In the section on 1930 to the present there are two television sets, two hair dryers, a basement window with a Formstone surround, a figure of a mouse from an amusement park ride, a poster from the Clyde Beatty circus, a program from the premiere of the John Waters movie "Hairspray," a "Hon" grave marker, a painted window screen, a tire planter, a scooter. But there's little or nothing on integration, the redevelopment of Charles Center and the Inner Harbor, the tremendous expansion of the arts or the history of the major league sports teams.

There are fine works by photographers A. Aubrey Bodine and Paul Henderson and painter Tom Miller, but nothing from the more than 400 pieces of painter Keith Martin's work left to the Peale by the artist, one of the finest ever to work in Baltimore.

The show contains some unexpected items of unusual interest, such as the Asia Booth Clarke letter and nine early Daguerreotype views of Baltimore from about 1850. And perhaps it can be argued that a skim-the-surface approach is appropriate for an overview of a collection.

Nevertheless, despite enjoyable moments, the second half of this show leaves the viewer unsatisfied. Here's hoping that future exhibits taken from the BCLM collection are as effective as the Peale presentation.

Art and history

What: "Celebrating the Baltimore City Life Collections"

Where: Maryland Historical Society, 201 W. Monument St.

When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays. The exhibit is semi-permanent, with no current closing date.

Admission: $4; $3 seniors, students and children aged 12 to 17; free for under 12. Tonight's opening from 5 to 8 is free to everyone.

Call: 410-685-3750

Pub Date: 5/07/98

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