Baltimore's Peale Center Re-activates a Forgotten Historic Building
The Peale Center in Baltimore’s downtown has played a number of roles since it opened in 1814 as the first building erected as a museum in the United States, dubbed "Peale's Baltimore Museum and Gallery of Fine Arts.”
Founded by Rembrandt Peale, son of artist, scientist, and inventor Charles W. Peale and member of the notable Peale family, the museum was a mélange of artworks, scientific artifacts (including a mastodon skeleton), and military artifacts. It was housed in a building designed by Robert Cary Long to resemble a three-story, brick, Federal-style townhouse with a two-story rear gallery extension.
Not only were the Peales a family of artists, but they were also early advocates of scientific exploration and new technologies. They started Baltimore Gas and Electric (BGE) in the shed behind the museum and spread gas lighting across “Light City,” offering gas-lit evening tours of the museum.
After the museum closed in 1829 due to Rembrandt’s extensive debt, the building was purchased by the city and used as Baltimore's City Hall from 1830 until the current city hall was built in 1875, and then was an early African American co-educational public school known as “Colored School Number 1” from 1875 to 1887. The building was temporarily used as city office space before becoming the Municipal Museum of the City of Baltimore from 1930 to its closure due to lack of funding in 1997. In 1998, the building and its collections were donated to the Maryland Historical Society.
Because of a continued lack of funding, the building, which was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1966, sat vacant for many years. In 2008, a group of concerned citizens founded the Friends of the Peale, and began an effort to save the building. In 2012, the group joined forces with the Baltimore History Center at the Peale, a nonprofit corporation, to create the Peale Center for Baltimore History and Architecture, established to “restore the historic Peale Museum building as a center to celebrate the unique history of Baltimore, its people, and their buildings.”
It’s tempting to call the new Peale a museum, but that doesn’t fully encompass everything it offers. The Peale aims to serve as a hub for telling Baltimore’s place-based stories, in part through art and theater. These programs have fueled a successful financing campaign to return the building to its former glory, while creating a unique type of museum space for the city of Baltimore.
“[It's] a launching pad for supporting local culture-keepers and storytellers, while giving the building a new role in its community.”Nancy Proctor, executive director
And while new life has been breathed into the Peale as a cultural institution, it is one that remains in transition. As it stands now, the building’s exterior has been restored, and the historic garden has been tended to, while the interior is currently stable but in need of some TLC. Executive director Nancy Proctor hopes for a completed renovation by 2020.
This transitional status has presented the Peale Center’s staff with a challenge: How can they best activate the space, bring in interested parties and potential investors, and gain traction with the Baltimore scene, while the building is not yet fully renovated or open to the public?
To Proctor, art and storytelling presented itself as the clear answer. She saw the building’s period of transition as a unique opportunity for artists, performers, and creators to engage with the space. As such, she sought to collaborate with what she called “local culture-keepers and storytellers” and to set the Peale Center as a “launching pad for supporting them, while giving the building a new role in its community.”
One such artist and storyteller is Ursula Marcum, the co-artistic director of Submersive Productions, who fully took advantage of the unfinished historic building.
The group’s most recent collaboration with the Peale Center, “H.T. Darling’s Incredible Musaeum Presents: Treasures of the New Galapagos, Astonishing Acquisitions from the Perisphere,” expertly blended interactive, cutting-edge theater and set design with the curiosity-cabinet past that was the Peale Museum’s first life, where scientific and natural exhibits were shown alongside fine artworks including pieces by names like Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Gainsborough, and Diego Velazquez.
The first run in spring of 2017 was completely sold out, encouraging Submersive to do a second run later that year. Unlike most theater productions, Submersive saw people coming back three, four, even five times to unearth new pieces of the story.
For the Peale Center, bringing in artists and storytellers has meant bringing in a wider, younger, and more engaged audience to a space that would otherwise be closed to the public. Organizationally, it has meant bringing in secure funding from a wide array of sources, and blowing through anticipated attendance numbers in a matter of days.
Proctor plans to continue this type of engaged participation through a number of types of programming, including “HUMBUG: The Great P.T. Barnum Séance” by David London, a magician and storyteller, which runs through April 20, 2018. And Submersive Productions is currently keeping a lab at the Peale Center, where they continue to collaborate and plan future pieces for the planned 2020 opening.
The Peale Center is also home to the “Be Here Baltimore” project, which has sought to create a more inclusive and diverse set of stories about the city of Baltimore beyond the limited and often incorrect narrative of blight and neglect that has become the norm. This type of re-working of Baltimore’s story will continue into the museum as it fully opens to the public, through technology-driven and interactive exhibitions.
After all, the new Peale Center is being envisioned as a truly 21st-century museum.