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Photo by Jack Basmaci.

The Peale Museum and SPARK: New Light exhibit bring new energy to Baltimore City

The second you walk into the historic Peale Center on the intersection of Holliday and Lexington Street, it feels instantaneously familiar, like a déjà-vu or a snapshot, perhaps of a childhood memory. The sage colored doors, the familiar creaking of the staircase with every step, the overgrown garden in the back and the galleries which can only be described as ‘roomy and drenched in sunlight.’

As Daisy Brown, the Guest Service Manager and Staff Photographer for the SPARK: New Light exhibit, said, “when you walk through the door you can’t explain it. It is like coming to your family home or the home of a friend and thinking- wow I didn’t know I needed to be here the entire time. I didn’t know I belonged here.”

The Peale feels lived in. It feels like it may hold stories that would take an entire lifetime to summarize. And in that manner, it is true to its word, the museum/rowhouse/school/gallery/office has stood the tests of time and now has given life to yet another chapter in its history.

Opened in 1814 by Rembrandt Peale (named after the Dutch painter, Rembrandt), it was designed as a museum for the Peale family’s repository of personal and collected art as well as a space for artists to gather and display their collections, including artists such as Leonardo DaVinci, Thomas Gainsborough, Raphael, Angelika Kauffman and many others. 

In 1816, one of the rooms in the building got illuminated by a “ring of fire,” a chandelier lit by carbureted hydrogen gas, and the Peale was a space for the invention of lighting. It became the base of operation for the company we now familiarly know as the Baltimore Gas & Electric Company (BGE) and gave Baltimore the moniker of “City of Lights’ by illuminating its (and America’s) first streets with oil lamps. 

Through time the building has become an entity, taking even more forms such as Baltimore’s first city hall, and in 1878, it became the “Male and Female Colored School No. 1,” marking the beginning of secondary school education provided to African American Students in Baltimore City. 

The Peale has been through a lot of break down, transformation, abandonment and rebuilding, and its reopening as “Baltimore’s Public Museum” on August 13th, 2022 begins a new chapter in its history — one that UMBC gets to be an important part of. 

With the intention of being a home to Baltimorean arts and culture and a painstaking 5 years long and $5.5 million renovation, including increased accessibility throughout the building, the Peale Center opened its doors with the fifth annual installation of the SPARK pop-up gallery exhibition, cleverly titled, SPARK: New Light

The venture is a collaboration between UMBC, Towson University and is funded by the donations from PNC Banks. Curated by Catherine Borg, the exhibit seeks to display multimedia art from students and faculty of both universities and aims to highlight more diverse, intersectional and “subtle-not-so-subtle” art for its audience. 

Seated on the second and third floors of the museum, pieces of the SPARK exhibit are meticulously curated by Borg and beautifully presented in the big halls of the Peale, taking up its rightful space in the museum which inadvertently gave the exhibit its name. 

Akin to the nature of the museum, much of the art focuses on the ephemeral, like through UMBC class of 2022 Intermedia and Digital Arts MFA Adam Droneburg’s post apocalyptic installations, Post Us. With tactical armor made out of everyday items like Morton Salt dispensers, Nike knee pads and CVS medication bottles, and hundreds of cables and lacrosse sticks constituting the post apocalyptic evening gown, Post Us provides bitter and sharp commentary on the fleeting nature of our 21st century lives in the midst of a ongoing and progressively worsening climate crisis. 

This thread of ephemera is carried through many other exhibits, highlighted in different natures such as Uncanny Bodies by Corrie Francis Parks, an Associate Professor of Visual Arts – Animation at UMBC. The frame-by-frame visual media entices viewers to understand time and space in a new scale by condensing the audience to a grain of sand and asking them to focus on the smaller details before they fade away. 

“Taking stock of our collective story” is an important part of SPARK’s mission and one displayed in grandeur and subtleties throughout the art in the museum. Foster Reynolds-Santiago, UMBC class of 2022 Intermedia and Digital Arts MFA’s Transgender Euphoria: Puerto Rico’s Queer Exhaltation aims to exhibit such a story — woven threads, physical artwork and visual art all come together in all their glory to exhibit the intersectionality of Santiago’s life in a harmonious and joyous way. Even in a dimly lit room, the installation is grand, eye-catching and heart-warming to look at. 

The ethos of the work can be of grandeur and joy like with Reynolds-Santiago’s work as well as of remembrance and reflection like The Thomas Project,  a six-part multimedia installation by Irene Chan, an Associate Professor of Visual Arts – Print Media at UMBC. The installation was designed as a museum for the life of Thomas Sylvanus, a 19th-century Chinese man who lived in the U.S. East Coast, was enslaved in Baltimore and ran away to join the Union Army. His life is displayed in scatters through printed blankets, photos of his family, the sewing pattern for his uniform and even his military uniform embroidered with statements used to describe him as well as demean him. The installation beautifully asks us to remember those forgotten in history, to pay respects for their struggles and sacrifices and recognize their lives as an important part of our culture. 

Chan made the story of a man who many would have forgotten accessible for all to understand and this work exemplifies the purpose of an exhibit like SPARK at the Peale: to provide illuminations to what previously would have been in the dark. 

The location, manner and works at the Peale are worth great importance because they allow space for new life as well as old. They hold the history of the City of Light and the future of those who come from it. There are far too many talented artists worth noting at the SPARK: New Light exhibit and all of them came into the space with a clear vision of providing the extended Baltimore community with new history and life of its own.

Brown described it the best while she gently parsed through the lush leaves in the back garden: “[The Peale is] not an actual museum in the front that we don’t hold in actual artwork — we hold stories. Stories of Baltimore, our past, our present and our future’s past too. It’s the home the city’s always had but never knew about sitting patiently with its treasure trove of memories.”