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The Great Curate

Date: December 11, 2015, What's Up? Magazine, Lisa Hillman

New Historic Annapolis initiative aims to tell the storied history of the city through 99 chosen objects

Get ready, Annapolis. Your history is about to be told like never before.

This time next year Historic Annapolis plans to unveil a large scale exhibit that tells “A History of Annapolis in 99 Objects.” Set to open at several sites around Annapolis, it promises to be every bit as challenging to produce, and as fascinating to observe, as its title implies.

How the Idea Emerged

Widely known as one of the area’s leading non-profit, preservationist organizations, Historic Annapolis, Inc. (HA) prides itself on promoting the city’s unique, historic character and architectural legacy. Founded in 1952, it’s largely responsible for saving scores of buildings in Annapolis. But due to the economy and changes in the organization’s focus, in recent years the once highly proactive group somewhat languished. Some longtime Annapolitans worried that Historic Annapolis was straying from its original mission. But today, with its plans for “A History of Annapolis in 99 Objects,” Historic Annapolis has struck an idea that’s resonating across the region. 

“Today you see lots of exhibits that portray history through objects,” notes HA Senior Historian Glenn Campbell. “Objects are accessible. People can see them, handle them. They can tell a much larger story.”

Like many provocative ideas, this one emerged ‘round a table.

Seated some 18 months ago were three of the organization’s leaders: President Robert Clark, Glenn Campbell, and Vice President for Public Programs Lisa Robbins. Wondered Clark, what would replace the current “Freedom Bound” exhibit when it traveled to a new venue next year?

Since assuming the CEO role in 2012, Clark confesses he yearned to see the history of Annapolis consolidated, perhaps in one place, a means to satisfy visitors who asked, “Where can I see the history of this town? “

Campbell suggested they consider a concept made popular by two recent books: Neil MacGregor’s “A History of the World in 100 objects” and Dr. Richard Kurin’s “The Smithsonian’s History of America in 101 Objects.” The concept stuck but with a slight variation. They would tell Annapolis’ story through 99 objects—the address of HA’s museum on Main Street, where many of the objects would be displayed.

From such musings a year ago, a great exhibit is taking shape.

Countdown to Opening

HA officially launched the project in April with a series of gatherings at the James Brice House, itself, a local and national landmark and likely to be part of the exhibit. These sessions introduced the project and initiated its first phase: a call to historians, directors of museums and other historic sites, and the general public to nominate potential objects. A 20-member advisory panel has devoted the last several months to help cull more than 200 submissions. They ranged from large ideas, like St. Anne’s Cemetery, to smaller pieces, like Civil War buttons.

“The challenge,” Robbins says, “is how to select those objects that people can relate to—a sewing machine, a sword, or costume—so that they tell a larger and more complex story.” She sites, for example, Marion Warren’s photographs. The iconic 20th century photographer captured decades of Annapolis’ history, as well as its maritime heritage, in photographs that today grace many private and public buildings. “But instead of just the photographs, we want to display one of his cameras,” Robbins adds.

How to display all 99 objects falls to the creative, locally-based firm Design Minds. Over the next few months the company will generate a final design and production schedule. Fabrication begins next summer with installation in the fall, and, if the schedule holds, a grand opening next November. 

Themes Tell the Story

As thousands of fourth graders who annually visit Annapolis discover, the city has played a prominent role in our nation’s history in addition to its more parochial past. Clark loves the juxtaposition of Annapolis “as a sleepy, backwater town” while at the same time it served as our nation’s first peacetime capital and site of George Washington’s resignation as Commander in Chief of the army at the end of the Revolutionary War.

“So there’s obviously the larger theme of Annapolis on a national scale, but, also, we want people to relate to Annapolis as a small town, perhaps reflective of their own home towns, through objects and fragments of the past,” Clark says.

The exhibit will track five basic themes: Business and the Economy, Government and Politics, Maritime Activities, Religion and Community Organizations, and Social and Racial Diversity. Many objects fall into more than one category. An example is the printer’s type from the Maryland Gazette, published in Annapolis, on the site of the Jonas and Anne Catherine Green House on Charles Street. First printed in the 1720s, the paper is believed to be the oldest continuous weekly in America.

While most of the objects will be displayed at 99 Main Street and Brice House on East Street, the exhibit also will include other locations. By doing so, Clark hopes to introduce residents and visitors to the town’s important sites, such as the Annapolis Maritime Museum, Naval Academy Museum, Hammond Harwood House, and State House, where existing objects—like Washington’s resignation speech—will be included in the project’s design. 

Local touring companies are gearing up.

“It may be too much for anyone to take in at one time,” Clark says. “Therefore, we hope this will generate thousands of return visits to Annapolis.”

Show and Tell

Once completed, the exhibit—as envisioned—will itself add another milestone to Annapolis’ rich history. Historic Annapolis forecasts educational and cultural spin-offs: lectures, scholarly conferences, and, of course, publications to document the collection. The goal is to make the exhibit “innovative, engaging, and fun,” and to reaffirm the area’s interest and concern for preserving the past.

“The reason your eyes are happy when you walk around State Circle,” Clark says, “is the work of a lot of people who have done a lot to preserve it for a very long time.” Adds Campbell, “The Annapolis we have today is a result of people in the past making wise decisions about the future. They created what we have today. Now we have the responsibility to preserve it.” 

And as Mumford summarizes, given its size, “No City in America has more history than Annapolis.”


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