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Lewis Museum's pivotal moment


Journey of Faith: The Creation of the Reginald F. Lewis Museum is testimony to the power that lies in a well-told anecdote.

The Maryland Public Television documentary that premieres tonight is anchored by just such a carefully honed recollection. The snapshot this tale offers of a pivotal moment in the creation of Baltimore's as-yet unopened African-American history museum, allows one to witness an idea as it crosses into the realm of brick-and-mortar reality.

In 1998, the state pledged $30 million for the creation of the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture, which is scheduled to open next week. But the promise of money came with what Nate Howard, MPT's on-camera correspondent, calls a "seemingly insurmountable" hurdle: To receive the $30 million, the would-be founders first would have to raise $1.5 million on their own.

At the time, the demand seemed impossible, according to attorney George Russell, chairman of the board of directors of the museum and the driving force behind its birth: "Where are we going to get a million-five? They didn't intend for us to have the museum."

As the camera settles in on the soft-spoken Russell, he describes how he "reached out" to attorney and Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos for advice.

"Peter Angelos told me to meet him in front of the Harbor Bank of Maryland at 12 noon on a Wednesday," Russell says in the film. "Well, I was there at 11 o'clock standing in the sun, and he walked down the street, and he had an envelope in his hand. I can see it just as clearly today as I did on that day. He deposited $1.5 million with the Harbor Bank. ... I have to ascribe it to divine intervention; no one gives a million-five to a dream."

It is a remarkable story about money, power and community in its own right. But Howard and producer Catherine Beck-Shoup deserve credit for skillfully setting the scene and training the camera on Russell as he recollects the event.

While Russell's is only one of many voices telling the museum's story, his is the most powerful and memorable. And he is not telling only happily-ever-after anecdotes. He pulls no punches in talking about how he felt when Kurt Schmoke, then mayor of Baltimore, asked the museum to take up residence in the empty City Life Museums building.

"I was so angry that he would want us to accept a used museum," Russell says, explaining that it reminded him of being a student in Baltimore's segregated schools and getting only used books - texts that were handed down to African-American students after they had been used by white students.

Journey of Faith is at its best in recounting the compelling narrative of the museum's birth. Hearing it whets one's appetite for a visit.

But given its 30 minutes of running time, the documentary should have stopped there. Instead, Howard and Beck-Shoup try to cram in explanations of the symbolism of the building with a slam-bam tour of the facility and sketchy overviews of some of the collections. The result is so superficial that at times it feels like a promotional film - the kind that might be shown at a sales convention or management retreat.

Still, this is a documentary with much to say not about just the African-American experience in Maryland, but about the politics of preserving the past - and adapting the rich oral tradition in African-American culture to TV storytelling.


What: Journey of Faith: The Creation of the Reginald F. Lewis Museum

When: Tonight at 8:30

Where: MPT (Channels 22 and 67)

In brief: Some fine TV storytelling about the founding of Baltimore's newest museum

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