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Peale Museum to celebrate 208th birthday with grand reopening

The Peale Museum was commissioned in 1813 by by artist and gaslight entrepreneur Rembrandt Peale and designed by Robert Cary Long Sr., Baltimore’s first professional architect. (File photo)

The Peale Museum will open its doors Aug. 13 to celebrate its 208th birthday with a free grand reopening celebration, showcasing the five-year, $5.5 million renovation of the nation’s first purpose-built museum.

Festivities will run from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at 225 Holliday St., featuring exhibitions, entertainment and local food options. The event is supported by PNC Bank and the Maryland State Arts Council.

Over the past two centuries, The Peale has evolved, serving as the site of several groundbreaking firsts. Seated in the heart of downtown Baltimore within eyeshot of City Hall, the building was once Baltimore’s first city hall, the first public high school available to Black students in Maryland and the birthplace of the Baltimore Gas & Electric company (BGE).

Founded in 1814 by artist and gaslight entrepreneur Rembrandt Peale, The Peale is home to the world’s largest digital archive of Baltimore stories. Unlike many museums, The Peale doesn’t have a physical collection, but amplifies Baltimore’s voices, cultures, and experiences as both a laboratory and teaching museum and a production house of culture where programming is community-driven.

The Peale will showcase artists from all around Baltimore during the grand reopening through innovative exhibits and installations. The event will open with The Dan Meyer Choir and a praise song by Mama Linda Goss for The Peale’s garden. A ceremonial lighting of a replica “Ring of Fire,” as Peale’s 19th-century gaslight chandeliers were called, by a representative of BGE will follow.

Curator Catherine Borg will inaugurate the Spark: New Light exhibition, and artist Lauren Muney will dedicate the Peale Faces frieze of silhouettes of contemporary Baltimoreans. Additionally, Historic Ebenezer AME Church and neighboring Zion Lutheran Church representatives will join The Peale’s Board Chair William Chickering to lead a ceremonial ribbon-cutting of The Peale’s “Walk of Honor,” a path of commemorative bricks donated by supporters of the renovations.

Attendees will be able to explore the museum’s three floors filled with history and attractions all day.

The Spark: New Light exhibition will illuminate the creative vision of 24 artists in homage to Baltimore, also known as “Light City,” presented by Towson University, UMBC, and PNC Bank. Guests will participate in Hostile Terrain 94, an interactive art project sponsored and organized by the Undocumented Migration Project.

Participants will explore the Peale Faces frieze with silhouette artist Lauren Muney, see Lee Boot’s 25-year retrospective exhibition in development, and record their Baltimore stories with Daisy Brown.

Attendees will peruse the names of the more than 700 individuals and organizations who made The Peale’s renovations possible and have the opportunity to share their memories along with suggestions for how the museum can be a resource to the community in the future.

Additionally, guests will have a firsthand opportunity to travel through the long, diverse and eventful history of The Peale as they explore the many stories of the 208-year-old building and the family that built it, including learning about its pivotal role in African American education in the state as Male and Female Colored School No. 1 (1878-1889).

After a 20-year vacancy following its closure in 1997, The Peale embarked on its multi-million dollar renovations of the nation’s first purpose-built museum under the leadership of the late James D. Dilts in his capacity as board president of The Peale Center for Baltimore History and Architecture. Known today simply as The Peale, this national treasure is now fully renovated and ready to share authentic Baltimore stories presented by the city’s storytellers, griots, performers, artists, architects, historians, students, educators, and culture-keepers of all kinds.

The Peale is based in the oldest museum building in the United States. The national historic landmark was commissioned in 1813 by Peale. Robert Cary Long Sr., Baltimore’s first professional architect, designed the building.

Peale’s Museum and Gallery of the Fine Arts opened Aug. 15, 1814. An 1823 catalog lists the works of Leonardo da Vinci, Gainsborough, Breughel, Reynolds, Bosch, van de Velde, Ruysdael, Kauffman, Claude Lorrain, Poussin, Velasquez, Canaletto, Raphael and Sully.

Rembrandt, and later his brother Rubens, operated their museum until 1829. Museum trustees then sold the building to the City of Baltimore to become Baltimore’s first City Hall. The collection eventually went to American showman and businessman P.T. Barnum.

In 1878, the city repurposed the building to host Male and Female No. 1 Colored Primary School. Over the next 11 years, the building was home to a primary school, grammar school, and the city’s first public high school for Black Baltimoreans.

Between 1889 and the 1920s, the building housed Baltimore’s water department, an organ factory, a sign painting company, a machine shop, and a bedspring factory.

Following a reconstruction in 1931, which transformed the building into the structure we see today, it became the Municipal Museum of the City of Baltimore. That museum introduced generations of Baltimoreans to the history, culture and traditions that defined their city.

In 1997, the museum closed, and its collection was transferred to the Maryland Historical Society, now the Maryland Center for History and Culture. The shuttered building would remain largely vacant for two decades.

The Peale sprang back to life in 2017 as a new kind of civic museum and home to Baltimore stories. The building underwent extensive renovations and reopened in 2022 to serve as Baltimore’s Community Museum.

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