Rembrandt Peale opened his “Museum and Gallery of Fine Arts” in 1814. The museum only lasted a few years, but the history of this handsome brick building, the first of its kind in the new nation, had just begun. Over 175 years, it became Baltimore’s first city hall, an innovative but short-lived public school for black students and, finally, the first city museum. In the 1990s, the Baltimore City Life Museum grew nearby. The Peale handed over its collections. When the City Life Museum closed up shop, the collections went to the Maryland Historical Society.
After 2010, a group of enterprising souls led by Jim Dilts sought to save the all but deserted building. As the then-president of the Maryland Historical Society, I received visits looking for support. Like so many of my colleagues, I was skeptical. Who needed another rundown museum in a hard to get to downtown neighborhood?
Then, in 2017, new leadership arrived with a brand new paradigm. Within months, the old, dusty building was sputtering back to life. A mermaid in a tank checked my reservation for an event. With magician David London as a guide, I chased the ghost of PT Barnum at a séance and went through a time portal to explore Rembrandt Peale’s 1818 room of curiosities. In the revived back garden, David was accompanied by his pet lizard as he discussed surrealism.
The new leadership was out to save the city’s intangible cultural heritage — those voices and stories that have been too often overlooked. Over the past few years, I have watched in amazement as the Peale has burst to life. Concerts, lectures, pop-up exhibits, virtual tours, all of Baltimore has been invited to bring its stories. The Peale is now the proud steward of the largest collection of Baltimore digital stories in the world.
The Peale Center for Baltimore History and Architecture is a new kind of civic museum. So far, millions have been raised to make the center available to all. It needs only $400,000 to finish the job. Check it out and be inspired to support it at www.thepealecenter.org.