Week 18: Maryland Historical Society


Museum mission: The Maryland Historical Society seeks to illuminate the past, lend perspective to the present, and inform the future through the acquisition, preservation, and interpretation of manuscripts, archives, and objects that together form the fabric of Maryland History.

Unlike many other states, Maryland has a bit of a regional identity crisis: it can be considered northern, or southern, or mid-Atlantic. I grew up in Maryland, and I’ve always felt like more of a northerner at heart, but the state is often categorized differently. The Maryland Historical Society (MdHS), located in Baltimore, reflects this ambiguity; in one exhibit is a boundary marker from the Mason-Dixon Line that is often cited as a reason for classifying Maryland as a southern state.

Maryland Historical Society

Maryland Historical Society

The exhibit Divided Voices: Maryland in the Civil War exposes this unclear identity, which was heightened during the Civil War era. It is a spacious and comprehensive exhibit, full of objects that bring history to life: clothing and weaponry, furniture and medical equipment, Union and Confederate flags, a shadowbox memorializing the Battle of Antietam, and jewelry and rosaries carved by bored prisoners of war. Throughout it all are panels (with helpful blue or gray backgrounds) that tell both sides of Maryland’s involvement in the Civil War through quotes and images.

Many key Maryland individuals are highlighted: Clara Barton, John Wilkes Booth, John Brown, Frederick Douglass, Mary Surratt, Harriet Tubman. Numerous other, lesser-known names show up as well.

Artes Magazine’s extensive review, while containing many positive statements about the exhibit, also faults MdHS for overemphasizing Confederate participation and sympathies in Maryland, and for downplaying the voices of black Marylanders from this era. “The exhibition text is rife with ‘Lost Cause’ language,” notes the article’s author, Avi Decter (executive director of the Jewish Museum of Maryland). Furthermore, he writes, the exhibit presents the issue of slavery primarily from the vantage point of white slave-owners, rather than from slaves themselves.

Decter takes the museum to task for these interpretive decisions while also granting that the Confederate side simply did a much better job of preserving their own history. “In effect, having lost the war, the Confederate veterans ‘won the peace’”  by “creating memorials and monuments and…publishing memoirs and histories.” As the saying goes, “History is written by the victors,” but in this case, the vanquished turned their efforts toward preserving their side of history.

In another wing of the museum is a much smaller exhibit, Paul Henderson: Baltimore’s Civil Rights Era in Photographs, ca. 1940-1960. Henderson was a photographer, a landlord, and an active citizen in several groups including the NAACP.

The images in the exhibit depict milestones in the fight for civil rights as well as everyday scenes. Viewers see March on Washington organizer Bayard Rustin picketing against segregation at Ford’s Theatre, group photos at churches, and college students watching television. Thurgood Marshall is featured in a few of the photographs.

How did the photos come to be displayed? MdHS received the six thousand negatives “unprocessed and with little useful description,” states the museum’s blog devoted to this collection. The photos have been processed in the last few years by Towson University historic preservation students as well as interns, staff, and volunteers from the museum. Citizen historians are called upon, via the museum’s main blog, to help identify the people who appear in the photos.

In this exhibit, we see the efforts of people struggling for civil rights, documented by a photographer who tirelessly captured this struggle, researched and displayed by contemporary historians determined to bring these stories to light.

Between Divided Voices’ take on the Civil War and Paul Henderson’s photography exhibit, visitors see portrayals of struggles against inequality – portrayals that are shaped by the ways in which the people before us chose to preserve and document the events of their day. At the same time, people in our own time are not bound by the interpretations from the past; we make choices about which objects and documents to research further and depict. In Divided Voices is a large and detailed look at Union and Confederate participation in the Civil War in Maryland, which could perhaps be improved by making changes to what is shared and emphasized. In the case of the Paul Henderson photo collection, historians have consciously chosen to research these images so that local African American life in the civil rights era could be better understood.

In addition to these two exhibits, MdHS has a wealth of other things to see: exhibits about Maryland’s role in the colonial period and the War of 1812; a children’s room and an exhibit of toys; and Maryland furniture, silver, and folk art. Also, dog lovers will not be disappointed.

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March’s blog theme is Museums and Fighting Inequality.

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About Laura

Paralegal with Master of Arts in Teaching in Museum Education, frequent museum visitor, based in Washington, DC. I care about what museums can do, both in terms of public offerings and internal practices, to make the world a better place. I blog about museum education ("informed"), the social work of museums ("humane"), and visitor experience ("citizenry").
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