Some exciting plans are in the works for new displays and exhibits at the State House. Hope Stewart of Four Rivers interviewed Elaine Rice Bachmann, Deputy State Archivist and Secretary of the State House Trust (and past honoree as Four Rivers Heritage Professional of the Year in 2015), to learn more about the history and future of the Maryland State House.
Do you find visitors to be aware of the significance of the State House as a local heritage destination?
The Maryland State House attracts around 200,000 visitors every year. We’d like to think they are drawn to our site because we are the oldest state capitol in continuous use, but they may not be aware of the four centuries of legislative history we interpret, so we do our best to engage them in the building’s narrative as soon as they arrive. We have the Old Senate Chamber, representing 18th century history and depicting George Washington’s resignation as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army. The Old House of Delegates Chamber highlights important moments in US and Maryland history in the 19th century. Then we have the 20th century annex and the 21st century chambers where history is still being made today.
What is the most challenging aspect of working in the State House?
The State House is a working building, not only a museum, making it a little more challenging to preserve in a way that properly maintains its historic integrity. The building often needs to be updated to accommodate current technological needs, requiring a compromise between historic preservation and modern convenience. We try to approach this challenge with the appropriate care and attention that protects its historic value while preparing it for the future.
Do you have a favorite item on display?
I love the portrait representing Washington, Lafayette, and Tilghman at Yorktown. It was a special commission painted by the Maryland-born artist Charles Willson Peale to commemorate the surrender of General Charles Cornwallis. The quality of the project was so important to Peale that it took him three years to complete. He personally delivered it to the State House in December 1784. The frame was made by Annapolis cabinetmakers John Shaw and Archibald Chisholm, which increases its local significance.
Are there any interesting items not on display that you’d love to feature?
Speaking of John Shaw, who was a very recognized craftsman during his time, we have some of his original furnishings made especially for the State House in the late 18th century. Unfortunately, these pieces post-date George Washington’s resignation speech in the Old Senate Chamber, so in the interest of historic accuracy we have chosen not to display them in that location. Perhaps we’ll find an appropriate way to feature them some day.
Do you have any ideas for using new technology in your exhibits?
We’re seeking to find an effective balance between technology and interpretation. We have iPads available for use in the Stairwell Room next to the Old Senate Chamber. These devices help add a deeper layer to the visitor experience, but we also understand not everyone has time to spend clicking through electronic resources, so we want to make sure that nothing is buried in an interactive exhibit.
I’d really like to have interpretive technology outside the State House, such as QR codes, so visitors can get a better sense of some of the individuals immortalized as statues on our hill, such as Baron Johann DeKalb, a German soldier who fought for the colonies in the American Revolution. It would help to provide visitors with more historical context and engage them even during the hours when the State House is not open to the public.
What are some future plans for exhibitions at the State House?
We want to be able to tell different sides of our state’s history and present a balance in stories and voices. We’ve recently hung the Calvert family portraits in the rotunda. Many visitors may not realize that there was a time when Maryland was divided up between only a few wealthy families, including the Calverts who held the title of Baron Baltimore. We also plan on installing life-size figures of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman in the 19th century Old House of Delegates Chamber. The difficulty in this installation is the fact no historic records indicate that either of them ever actually visited the State House. However, they still had an important impact on the decisions made by Maryland legislators, so their presence was very profoundly felt in these chambers. After all, this was where slavery was abolished in Maryland.
We are also planning on reopening the Treasury Building as a self-guided attraction. Not only is it the oldest public building in Annapolis, dating between 1735 and 1736, the exhibits will also help tell the 17th century story of the transfer of the capital of Maryland (back when it was still a colony) from St. Mary’s City to Annapolis.
To learn more about the Maryland State House as a heritage attraction, click here.