Volume 14, Issue 19 ~ May 11 - May 17, 2006

Following in History’s Footsteps

Where we pass today, others have been before. That’s the story called History. This is the place to start your Quest.

by Ben Miller

HistoryQuest — the new orientation center near City Dock — promotes itself as the place Where Your Annapolis Adventure Begins.

What is in it for you?

Is it worth a visit? Is it interesting? Is it fun? Will it show you something new about your city if you are a long-time resident? Will HistoryQuest jump-start an Annapolis stay for first-time visitors?

The answer to these questions is yes, according to this reviewer, who attended the official ribbon-cutting opening on April 28.

HistoryQuest, on the corner of Main and Green streets in Annapolis, is housed in a restored 18th-century building renamed the St. Clair Wright Center. The location is ideal for its purpose.

Its purpose is to be a “portal to the city,” said Barry Jackson, board chairman of Historic Annapolis Foundation, the parent of HistoryQuest. Visitors can learn “what to do today and what is happening today.”

At a desk on the first floor, HistoryQuest staff welcome visitors, direct them to area events and recommend historic sites and tours that fit their interests. HistoryQuest isn’t stepping on the toes of the Visitor Center on West Street; with its emphasis on history, it aims to complement the Visitor Center.

HistoryQuest also aims to be a Ticketron for Annapolis: a one-stop shopping place to buy tour tickets for Annapolis carriage rides, Capital City Colonials tours, Discover Annapolis Trolley Tours, the Hammond-Harwood House, U.S. Naval Academy Tours and Watermark Tours. Soon there’ll also be electronic hook ups into the Annapolis Maritime Museum, the Banneker-Douglass Museum, the Chase-Lloyd House as well as other historic sites in the future including those of the Four Rivers Heritage Area farther south in Anne Arundel County. While you’re getting information and buying tickets, your kids can browse the gift shop, also on the first floor.

Entry to the first floor with information, the gift shop and exhibits on historic preservation is free. There is a charge (adults: $2, children: $1) for seeing the exhibits on the second and third floors.

Okay, HistoryQuest is worth a visit.

Is it fun? Well, yes and no. It’s fun for this reviewer. I’m interested in history. Will it be fun for your kids? Unless your children are studious types, they may be restless in 10 or 15 minutes.

However that’s about the right amount of time for your visit.

“We want to get people in and get them out to meet history face to face,” said Gregory Stiverson, president of the Historic Annapolis Foundation.

The exhibits and film on the second and third floors are worth the price of admission. Visitors and long-time residents alike will learn something new about the place of Annapolis in American history. The second- and third-story windows look out on the streets and buildings near City Dock, and exhibits there relate these views to the city of the past.

Exhibits tie the personal stories of real people to the big stories of Annapolis’ Golden Age of trade and tall ships, the signers of the Declaration of Independence and the American Revolution, the Civil War and the building boom of the 20th century.

The exhibits spend more time on the Civil War, said Stiverson, because there is little else in Annapolis that tells the story in which this area figured so prominently. For example, Camp Parole (for which Parole is named) housed thousands of Union soldiers who had been captured by the Confederates, exchanged as prisoners and were waiting to rejoin their regiments.

Most of the exhibits are panel exhibits. Panels are not the most exciting type of exhibits in this interactive age, but the text is concise and informative; the design attractive and clean.

Eleven 30-second narrated film segments show buildings and scenes and tie them to the history of Annapolis and the surrounding area. They are beautifully filmed and engagingly narrated. See one or more, and you’ll want get out to experience the places yourself.

Downstairs, you can rent any of four self-guided audio tours with a map. The system allows you to choose the sites you want in the sequence you want. You don’t have to follow a predetermined path. Audio tours present Annapolis Highlights; Rebels to Statesmen: Revolution in Annapolis; African-American Annapolis; and A City Divided — Annapolis during the Civil War.

HistoryQuest does what it promises in presenting Annapolis and the area as A Museum without Walls. The experience sends you out on the street intrigued to see more.

Historic Annapolis Foundation deserves extra credit for a sensitive restoration of an historic building. The organization preserved the floors, much of the wooden trim and the original layout of the rooms. Most important, while preserving the structure, the building and the exhibits are fully accessible. An elevator provides wheelchair access to all three floors. Audio wands and closed captions are available to make the exhibits, film segments and tours accessible to people with visual and hearing impairments.

The St. Clair Wright Center is named for the woman who was — by all accounts — a powerful force for preservation in Annapolis. It is in large part thanks to her foresight that there is a museum without walls in the city today, not a collection of urban renewal buildings from the 1960s and 1970s.

Art Wright spoke for the family at the ribbon cutting. He imagined that if St. Clair Wright were here she would say, “Keep it. Don’t tear it down. You can’t rebuild it once it’s gone,” he said.

So what’s in HistoryQuest for you?

In a few minutes’ visit to HistoryQuest, you’ll get a sense that there’s a story behind the places we walk and shop and live. Where we pass through today, others have been before us. That’s the story called History. This is the place to start your Quest.

Open daily 9am-5pm at 99 Main St.: 410-267-6656; www.historyquest.org.

Ben Miller planned museum exhibits for the National Park Service from Alaska to Virgin Islands for 32 years and has had a hand in the making of more than 100 exhibits. He’s visited hundreds more museums and has also worked in historic preservation in his long-time home, Jefferson County, West Virginia, including both Harpers Ferry and Shepherdstown. This is his first assignment as Bay Weekly’s new museum critic.

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