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New exhibit could collect more visitors for Lewis Museum

A nationally renowned exhibit has made its way to Baltimore, where it may bring a surge of visitors to the East Coast’s largest African-American museum.

Curated over 35 years, The Kinsey Collection offers a variety of items that chronicle black history in the United States.

The Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture will open its newest exhibit this weekend, “The Kinsey Collection: Shared Treasures of Bernard & Shirley Kinsey — Where Art & History Intersect.”

Curated over 35 years by Bernard and Shirley Kinsey, with help from their son, Khalil, this collection offers a variety of items that chronicle black history in the United States. It has been on display in eight museums and has won three national awards, including a President’s Medal.

Part of the collection has been on the road since February, on a tour of three museums — the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco, the Harvey B. Gantt Center in Charlotte, N.C., and now the Lewis museum.

The tour came about through a collaboration between the Kinsey family and Wells Fargo, which was seeking a way to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.

The Kinsey Collection includes paintings, sculptures, documents and artifacts. Some of the items come straight from the hands of historical figures — letters written by Zora Neale Hurston, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, decisions from Dred Scott v. Sandford and Brown v. Board of Education and, as a centerpiece of sorts, an early copy of the Emancipation Proclamation.

The exhibit is expected to bring in tens of thousands of visitors during its time in Baltimore, said Helen Yuen, director of marketing for the Lewis Museum.

That would be a significant increase in traffic for the museum, which has experienced financial hardship. Its average annual attendance has been about a quarter of what was expected when the institution opened.

“Museums are struggling for attendance all over the country,” said Samuel Black, president of the Association of African American Museums.

And for a museum that charges admission, like the Lewis, visitors must be compelled not only to visit, but also to pay the fee.

“Niche museums like ours face a particular challenge,” said Yuen, so the museum is reaching out past its own geography and cultural expertise.

Part of that outreach involved Visit Baltimore, which is marketing the exhibit throughout the surrounding area, including Maryland, Washington and Pennsylvania.

Visit Baltimore has put considerable effort into promoting the city’s history, said chief marketing officer Sam Rogers, and that effort is paying off.

Rogers referenced a 2012 study by Longwoods International, which said that 20 percent of overnight leisure visitors to Baltimore go to a museum — about double the U.S. average. It also showed that 18 percent of Baltimore overnight leisure visitors go to a landmark historic site, versus 13 percent nationally.

Andy Bertamini, Maryland regional president for Wells Fargo, fostered the connection between the Lewis museum and the Wells Fargo tour. He said he knew the museum was working toward a major improvement when he proposed that the collection come to Baltimore.

“I knew we could get enough people to come to the exhibit,” said Bertamini. “We saw this as an opportunity … to really turn the museum around.”

Khalil Kinsey, who has helped his parents with the collection, agrees that the exhibition could increase the museum’s visibility.

“I’ve talked to a lot of people who may have heard of it, but they don’t know where it is, or haven’t heard of it at all,” he said. “This is a wonderful facility, a wonderful museum — first-class, and it deserves first-class material.”