The Peale is scheduled to have its official grand opening Saturday after completing renovations that began in 2020. For 208 years, the building on Holliday Street between Saratoga and Lexington has held on as a hub of culture and education. The Baltimore Banner explores the evolution of the center and what’s in its future.
The Peale Beginnings
Charles Willson Peale, known to most simply as Willson, was born in 1741 in Queen Anne’s County. A painter and art collector, later in life he opened a small museum in Philadelphia dedicated to his interest in natural history. The museum featured taxidermy of birds and other animals.
His son, Rembrandt Peale, moved away from the family home in Philadelphia back to his roots in Maryland. Upon arriving to Baltimore in 1814, Rembrandt Peale opened “Peale’s Baltimore Museum and Gallery of Fine Arts” on Holliday Street. It was the first purpose-built museum building in the western hemisphere.
Willson, Raphael, Rembrandt, and Rubens Peale, excavated bones to reconstruct 2 complete mammoth skeletons. One was exhibited in the family’s Philadelphia museum, the other in the Baltimore museum. The museum also made history as the first to feature gas lighting in the building. Rembrandt Peale went on to open the Baltimore Gas Light Company in 1816.
208 years, many uses
The museum relocated its holdings to Baltimore Street. In 1829, Rembrandt Peale and his brother Rubens Peale (who was running the museum at the time) decided to sell the building to recover debts from building it. From the 1830s until 1875, the building was utilized as Baltimore’s City Hall, according to a history of the Peale Museum.
In 1878, the Male and Female Colored School No. 1 was established in the building. As a schoolhouse, the building underwent a series of small renovations that would allow for classrooms and spaces for students.
A report from the same year, described the building in detail. The structure and layout had changed very little. According to the report, “the building in rear of old Council chamber was taken down, in order to make room for a yard, and also for an adjunct building enclosing a rear stairway.” The yard for students later became a garden in the rear of the building and the classrooms 10 galleries.
After The Male and Female Colored School No. 1 outgrew the space, the building went through more turnover — including as the home of the city’s water board. The city sold the building around 1915 and various private businesses rented it out. Eventually the building began to fall apart, as maintaining a 100-year-old structure to meet the needs of tenants proved difficult. To save the building from demolition, the city, which bought it back out of auction, restored and reopened the building as the Municipal Museum of the City of Baltimore in 1931.
In 1985, the building was renamed the Peale Museum of the Baltimore City Life Museums. Under this incarnation, the museums “weren’t just the history of the city, there were a lot of contemporary life and architecture [exhibitions], they had a really groundbreaking kind of public history and social history exhibitions,” said Nancy Proctor, the Peale’s current chief strategy officer. But facing hard times again, the city abruptly closed the City Life Museums in 1997.
The Maryland Center for History and Culture (formerly the Maryland Historical Society) acquired the holdings of the City Life Museums, including the Peale’s collection, after they closed. While closed, the building fell into disrepair again, and the basement was a storage area for all kinds of items. Proctor jokes, “We used to call the basement the basement of requirement, because anything we needed, we could find there.” The basement was cleared to make way for the next era of the building.
The next phase
When the Friends of the Peale met in 2005, they fundraised and worked to create the Peale Center for Baltimore History and Architecture Inc., which was finally established in 2012. At the time, there was not a clear mission for the museum, but it was clear that the historic building should be preserved. In 2014, the group began fundraising for historic restoration and in 2017, they began the search for an executive director.
When the Friends of the Peale approached Proctor, she was working at MuseWeb and had recently left the Baltimore Museum of Art. The group was searching for a purpose for the historic building; Proctor was searching for a home for the large collection of community stories. Beginning with her work at MuseWeb, Proctor had been researching and learning about the value of preserving community stories in the museum industry.
“If what you’re trying to do is elevate and amplify voices and stories that have been overlooked in the mainstream, the dominant cultural record, give them a home in the first museum building in the country,” Proctor said of the beginning of her work with the Peale.
During her work in museums, Proctor became known as a disrupter who looked for ways to make museums more expansive and representative of their communities.
“I was putting on a panel as a student [in MICA’s Community Arts MFA program] on museums and access; everyone told me I should talk to Nancy,” Robin Marquis, chief operations officer at the Peale, said.
The Peale became an experimental project for many people on staff. For Marquis, it was an opportunity to use their accessibility background in a real museum.
Since the Peale’s collection was almost exclusively online at the time, Proctor knew there were accessibility hurdles to address. Marquis as able to work with contractors A.R. Marani to make The Peale simply easier to use.
“I’m an artist with a disability; I use a walker to get around, and the first year I worked here without an elevator was extremely difficult,” Marquis said. Since the building was first erected in 1814, it had been “grandfathered into old laws, therefore not required to follow the laws of the ADA,” they added. Many museum buildings have not been accessible in an effort to preserve historic parts of the building.
“In order to install the track lighting in the galleries, we had to slot out the ceiling piece-by-piece,” said Alan Marani, principal contractor at A.R. Marani.
Each of the 10 galleries requires lighting to accentuate the artwork. Marani continued the history of bringing cutting-edge lighting technology to the Peale by installing a system that can be remote controlled, changing color and dimness as needed.
Bringing the lighting system into the 21st century aligned with the institutional changes happening at The Peale.
Proctor was clear that there needed to be a shared leadership model where people work as a team at the Peale. While she was hired to be the executive director, she quickly searched for people who could help her fulfill her vision. Marquis became the chief operating officer after doing accessibility consulting. Proctor quickly hired Jeffrey Kent as chief curator and Krista Green as chief administrative officer.
The team agrees that a community museum addresses the unique needs of Baltimore. The building is considered the focal point of the museum’s collection and the renovation an investment to ensure it is useful for years to come.
“Right now, we aren’t saying no to exhibitions. As long as it’s not hate speech, we are willing to give it a try,” says Heather Shelton, digital curator and registrar.
The team at the Peale is serious about becoming Baltimore’s Community Museum.
Kent, chief curator, has already begun making bold curatorial choices. Most recently, he brought artist Kumasi Barnett as the first exhibition in the newly renovated space. Kent has also established the Accomplished Arts Apprenticeship program, a 36-week vocational program that trains young people to do art services for collectors and museums. The goal of the program is to bring more diversity into art handling and installation.
The team at the Peale hopes to continue to build on the legacy of the Peale family while also introducing new programmatic efforts to support Baltimore as a hub for history and culture in the city.
Proctor believes that the changes they are undergoing is in line with what the original creator, Rembrandt Peale, would have wanted.
“We are using our new technology of the day, which is digital publishing, in the same way that Rembrandt used [innovation]. To bring attention to spotlight what’s going on in terms of Baltimore’s creativity.”
An earlier publication of this article included incorrect dates and facts about the early history of the Peale museum. The article has been corrected to reflect the accurate history.