Black History Exhibit Has No Steam

Celebrate Black History Month at the B & O Railroad Museum” reviewed by Elizabeth Sherwood


The Baltimore’s B & O Railroad Museum website calendar for the month of February posted that the museum offered a month-long exhibit, “proudly presented by AMTRAK,” on African Americans and their contributions to the railroad industry—a special installment marking Black History Month. The railroad was a very important regional employer of African Americans since its inception and has long had a major impact on the lives of the community’s workers. This sounded promising.

The exhibit was in the Roundhouse, the huge, round instantly recognizable landmarked edifice that dominates the museum property, in between two massive stationary railroad cars. It was so hard to locate that one needed to ask. Without a docent available, this proved difficult.

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Once found, the exhibit consisted solely of two 4 x 6 two-sided posters about the role African Americans were allowed to play in the railroad, and a 2 x 3 video screen which played slides that rotated at an extremely slow pace. These profiled some of the first documented African American railroad workers. The video was yards away from the posters, mounted on a barrel with a few benches in front of it strewn haphazardly.

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Dimly lit with absolutely no signage, it was impossible to tell that this area was supposed to highlight African Americans in the railroad work force. Once one found the video, it conveyed too much dense information in a small-screen format. With no audio accompaniment or story to add context to the information presented, the static slides took what could have been an interesting history and made it boring. The slides listed statistics about the vast number of African Americans who worked on the B & O, and in doing so, it overwhelmed with information that could have been utilized in a more aesthetically pleasing way. The viewer had no control over the pace of the information—anything of interest rushed by in a torrent with no sequential flow. It appeared randomly assembled and incoherent; some images had a lot of text and others had almost none. There was nothing in the way of testimonials; there was no human touch. The only primary source were pictures of documents.

In addition to this, the only other part of the museum dedicated to African American workers is in an adjacent rail yard in a dining car from the 1930s. The focus of the car was was on china and silverware. Near it is were some exhibit boards that listed some history of African Americans and their role in the railroad, which, beyond the hard labor-level, was generally limited to working in dining cars and as Pullman sleeping car attendants.

Overall, what little one learned one had to search for. Clearly this well-known museum, a hallmark of Baltimore, could have produced a carefully thought-out exhibit and they should have. There is an important story here to tell with so much potential. Even if the posters from the dining car and other materials scattered throughout the museum were organized in one bay of the Roundhouse, with places to sit and someone knowledgeable available to answer questions, and a tour of a Pullman sleeping car (that was not focused on dinnerware), it would have been an actual cohesive exhibit. It could also have been curated in one of the outer buildings of the museum, like the vacant learning center, to utilize it as an educational resource.

The entrance fee was expensive and there was no student discount. This keeps a majority of city’s population out of the museum. The museum’s website promised an examination of the importance that this Baltimore-based operation had with the African American community. This was not the case. The exhibition was deficient in every way. The shame is that there is so much potential for a thought-provoking exhibition of African American and railroad culture in recognition of Black History Month that went unrealized.

Celebrate Black History Month at the B & O Museum
B&O Railroad Museum
901 West Pratt St., Baltimore, MD 21223
<http://www.borail.org/Calendar-bo.aspx&gt;

Elizabeth Sherwood is a Baltimore-based writer and exuberant pursuer of adventure and travel.

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