Jeffrey Kent may be the chief curator of the Peale Museum, but as an artist who has lived in Baltimore for over 40 years, he’s ashamed that he only learned about the institution five years ago.
“It must be raised and strengthened that we have this gem of a museum in our city,” said Kent, 59.
The Peale preserves Baltimore’s stories through stories, artwork, in-person exhibits, and online experiences. The downtown building, near Baltimore City Hall, is home to 208 years of Charm City’s history.
“The fact that it is the first museum in the western hemisphere started there with gas lighting; the person who built this museum founded BGE. The first school for colored students,” Kent said, listing some of the Peale’s highlights.
After extensive renovations and 20 years of vacancy, the Peale is gearing up to come back as ‘Baltimore’s Community Museum’. A $5.5 million capital campaign funded the museum’s five-year renovation, and Saturday’s grand opening will show enhanced excavations.
“We are excited to honor and uplift the stories and voices of Baltimore’s communities by giving them a home in the nation’s first museum building with its rich and transformative history, now fully restored and accessible to all,” said Nancy Proctor, the Peale’s founder and chief strategy officer.
“We now have an elevator, the renovations are great,” added Kent. “It is now a state-of-the-art building.”
Historically, Baltimoreans gathered, shared culture, and wrote history both inside and outside the Holliday Street doors.
“History is amazing,” said Kent.
Rembrandt Peale, painter and son of entrepreneur, artist and gallery owner Charles Wilson Peale, architect Robert Cary Long Sr. commissioned to build what became the first building specifically designed to become a museum. Previously, museums were palaces, houses or spaces converted into galleries.
“They chose the Federal-style mansion as the model, and they just enlarged the rooms,” Proctor said. “These rooms are filled with beautiful natural light, as you would need in a pre-electric age, especially if you were a painter, like [Peale] used to be.”
Peale opened his Museum and Gallery of Fine Arts in August 1814 and immediately began selling tickets to pay off the debts for the building. Peale’s exhibits include pieces by artists such as Leonardo da Vinci, a mastodon skeleton and the first use of gas lighting – which was described as a magical “ring of fire”.
“He built a shed in the back of his museum and started burning pitch to produce the gas that powered chandeliers in his museum,” Proctor said. “This meant he could stay open after dark so he could sell more tickets.”
Baltimore had never seen anything like it.
“They say that people who couldn’t afford admission would come to Holliday Street and stand in front of the building and look at the windows because they’d never seen such a bright light from inside,” Proctor added.
Peale, an inventor and entrepreneur, joined a group of investors and founded Baltimore Gas Company in 1816, which later became Baltimore Gas and Electric Company (BGE). The company signed contracts to put gaslights on city streets, making Baltimore the first U.S. city (and one of the first in the world) to have gas-powered streetlights, hence the nickname “Light City.”
After the Peale closed in 1829 due to financial difficulties, the building reopened in 1830 as Baltimore’s first city hall.
“When the new City Hall was built in 1875, the city repurposed the building to serve as the No. 1 Male and Female Colored School,” said Proctor.
The “colored” school in the Peale was the first school to offer a secondary curriculum, which was critical for aspiring black educators because a high school diploma was required to teach.
“So the first black teachers in Maryland taught here at the Peale,” Proctor said.
The historic space went through more iterations, including: housing the Bureau of Water Supply, renting spaces for shops and factories, and in 1931 it became the Municipal Museum of the City of Baltimore.
In 1985, the museum became part of the Baltimore City Life Museums, consisting of local museums and historic sites that were privatized in 1992. The museum closed in 1997.
Now the Peale’s staff, supporters and guests describe the museum as a special place for everyone who walks through its doors.
“It can be this third space that doesn’t have all the baggage of your work, your home, your school and all these other institutions, largely because it’s a space created by the community — not some high-level authority, ‘ said Proctor.
Kent recalled one of his first projects with the Peale – a collaboration with photographer and Baltimorean Devin Allen, whose Baltimore protest photos were featured twice in Time Magazine.
“[Allen] expressed a desire to have a solo exhibition somewhere, informed by gentrification and the stories left behind in these vacant homes in East Baltimore,” said Kent. “We put together his exhibit called ‘Spaces of the Un-Entitled’ and it was dope.”
The Peale’s ethos is that the museum does not collect stories. The exhibits and stories belong to the artists and storytellers.
“We tend not to use the word ‘collect’ because it implies we own the stories,” Proctor said. “So we collect and manage stories, but the decision of what happens to them, whether it’s digital, or exhibitions, or live performances, it’s always with the creator.”
Baltimore native Krista Green describes stories as any combination of stories, novels, poems, spoken word, visual arts, and musical performances.
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“One of the things we definitely don’t try to do is assume what form a story will take or how it will come to Peale,” said Green, 50. “We’re not here to put a value on anything. – say ‘Yes, it’s worth it’ or not. We see our role as a facilitator and an advocate, which is very important to us.”
Baltimoreans play an important role in the Peale’s exhibits and stories.
“It doesn’t take a lot of bureaucracy to start or finish a project. We move projects fairly quickly from start to finish,” says Kent, emphasizing that he is an artist first and chief curator second. “We elevate the stories of Baltimore artists.”
When the Peale has its grand opening, the museum will showcase the renovations with a free, celebratory day from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, including entertainment from the Dan Meyer Choir and a song of praise from Mama Linda Goss for the Peale’s garden. A ceremonial replica ring of fire will be lit in honor of Peale’s original innovation.
Exhibits include “Spark: New Light Exhibition” featuring creations from 24 Towson University and UMBC artists; Lauren Mimsy’s “Peale Faces,” featuring hundreds of custom Baltimoreans silhouettes; and “Hostile Terrain,” a participatory art project hosted by the Undocumented Migration Project that opened in May, paused during renovations, and officially closes on August 26.
The next Peale exhibition won’t just be about Kent deciding as chief curator.
“Much of the programming year comes to us through our creative staff in Baltimore City, and I think that’s a special niche to fill,” said Green.