Sewage swamps Baltimore artifacts

Lisa Wise, part of a crew packing damaged artifacts at the Museum of Industry, wraps a bowl for cleaning and storage. Five feet of wastewater surged into the basement during Tropical Storm Isabel.
The Baltimore Museum of Industry staff prepared well for Tropical Storm Isabel's wind and waves.

They loosened the moorings of the venerable steam tug Baltimore to keep swells from battering the vessel against the museum's Locust Point dock and set artifacts on foot-high risers to guard against basement flooding.

But they didn't expect the tidal wave of sewage.

Surging from basement drains, 5 feet of wastewater swamped artifacts for four exhibits, destroyed a computer lab in the education building, fouled the heating and air conditioning systems and shuttered what had become one of the city's most popular stops for touring school groups.

The museum is scheduled to reopen at 10 a.m. Saturday after a week of intense scrubbing by a contractor that specializes in mopping up bacteria and mold.

Storm damage will easily top $1 million and could reach $1.5 million, depending on expert evaluations of sewage-saturated artifacts. The damage is significant for the 26-year-old museum, which is operated by a nonprofit organization and has an annual operating budget of about $1.4 million, said Paul Cypher, the museum's executive director.

"The loss is more than monetary," Cypher said. "What's more important is the loss of part of the story of Baltimore's industry for two or three generations from now. We expect that some of our stored objects will not be recoverable."

Swamped were stored exhibits on the National Brewing Co., printing presses, the glass industry and Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. memorabilia. Also waterlogged were artifacts that included an Ediphone, a dictation device invented and manufactured by Thomas A. Edison.

"The Ediphone is completely corroded inside," said museum spokeswoman Claire Mullins. "It's hard to look at now."

The museum endured wind damage to a recently restored cupola that had topped the William Knobe Piano Co. building on South Eutaw Street and to a waterfront pavilion that the museum rents for weddings and other events.

Aside from its dock, the museum suffered no notable damage from harbor flooding. The storm tide never reached the buildings.

Ironically, the museum had been planning to move its stored exhibits from the basement to a much larger above-ground storage space in a building the museum bought across from its main campus on Key Highway.

The museum staff had been preparing a federal National Endowment for the Humanities grant request for moving the artifacts before the storm, Cypher said. Moving the stored collection is expected to cost $1 million and to take several years.

"Storing objects is not a small matter," Cypher said. "What you see in exhibit space is a relatively small part of a museum's collection. Typically, 90 percent of the collection is in storage at any time."