Turnaround for Lewis museum of African-American history in Baltimore

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BALTIMORE – During Black History Month 2014, a Baltimore museum made some history of its own.

The Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture attracted record crowds in February, said Helen Yuen, director of marketing for the museum.

About 6,500 people visited the Lewis in February. The museum has typically had 5,000 during that month.

That’s good news for a museum that has struggled with attendance since it opened in 2005. Executive Director A. Skipp Sanders attributes much of the boost to the Kinsey Collection — an award-winning travelling exhibit which ran from Nov. 2 to March 2.

The collection, gathered by Bernard and Shirley Kinsey over 35 years, comprises art and artifacts important to black history in the United States. It includes rare items such as the written decisions from Dred Scott v. Sandford and Brown v. Board of Education, and an early copy of the Emancipation Proclamation.

“I would tear up over a couple of those documents,” said Sanders. “I learned more history from this exhibit than I ever learned in school.”

When the Kinsey Collection debuted in November, museum officials were hoping for tens of thousands of visitors throughout its four-month stay. By the end of January, 11,000 had walked through the exhibit gallery.

The increase in traffic was a welcome change for the Lewis.

The museum was projected to draw 150,000 visitors annually when it opened in 2005 but has brought in about 35,000 each year, Sanders said.

That original projection has haunted the museum, he said, and no longer reflects a reasonable goal. But the Lewis has been aiming to increase each month’s attendance by 20 per cent year-over-year, he said.

The Kinsey Collection did that and more, Sanders said. Monthly visitors increased by 38 per cent for each month the exhibit was in town compared to that period one year before.

The Lewis was the last of three museums where the collection was on display from February 2013 to February 2014 through a tour sponsored by Wells Fargo. Andy Bertamini, Maryland regional president for Wells Fargo and a member of the Lewis Museum’s board of directors, brought the opportunity to the museum’s attention.

“The hope was that there would become a lot more recognition and notoriety for the museum,” said Bertamini.

The plan worked. Wells Fargo kept track of media coverage of the Kinsey Collection throughout the three-city tour. It received as many media mentions during the Baltimore exhibit as it did for both of the other exhibits combined.

The Kinsey Collection started a ripple effect, said Yuen. It created buzz about the museum, and even sales at the gift shop saw a boost.

“I think that it has been an incredible foundation for us,” said Yuen, “and acted as a springboard for us to continue growing.”

And the partnership with Wells Fargo, larger than any of the museum’s previous corporate sponsorships, set a new precedent for corporate support, she said.

For instance, BGE agreed to sponsor the museum’s African American Children’s Book Fair for the next three years.

Now that the Kinsey Collection has left Baltimore, museum officials are hoping to maintain the momentum the exhibit created.

That prospect “kept me awake a lot of nights,” Sanders said. He and his staff recently planned out the museum’s special exhibits for the next three years.

But it was not just a popular exhibit that improved attendance in recent months, Bertamini said. Hiring a director of marketing and associate director of development, after two years of vacancies in those positions, helped create more recognition for the museum, which he thinks will follow through in the next exhibit.

“Invariably, when people come, they fall in love with the museum,” said Sanders. “If you don’t market, you die. The more we’re able to market, the more we get people to come in and check us out for themselves.”

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Information from: The Daily Record of Baltimore, http://www.mddailyrecord.com

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