(This is the second part of our series on the Edgar Allan Poe House and Museum’s future. To read the first part click here.)
Almost nothing else on earth evokes the kind of emotional wanderlust as the distinctive sound of a train. The rumble of a mighty engine on rails, the squeal of ponderous wheels, the lonesome cry of a whistle in the night. Trains are a nostalgic, romantic link to the past. Trains also figure into a host of heartbreaking songs.
As a frequent traveler in the early 19th century, Edgar Allan Poe would have taken a lot of trains. It is ironic, then, that the Baltimore City board of estimates punched the final ticket on Wednesday, sending the house and museum, which bears the author’s name down the line to the B&O Railroad Museum. The B&O will receive $180,000 to revamp the small museum, build an interactive website, initiate a shuttle van tour to the house and apply new avenues of commercialization; all as part of supporting a new non-profit entity called Poe Baltimore, according to a study approved by the city board of planning. Once the one-year contract with the B&O expires, it will be the job of Poe Baltimore to raise nearly $300,000 annually to keep that plan afloat.
The plan was not released to the public in time for serious debate prior to the deadline for submitting comments or complaints to the board of estimates. Even those on the board of Poe Baltimore were left in the dark, relying on what little they could glean from thin hand-outs and from a vague power point presentation.
Those involved in setting the wheels in motion maintain that they have placed the Poe House and Museum on the right track. But a closer look at the consultant’s report raises more questions than it offers answers, as it relegates the Poe House to an obscure spot in the marshaling yards before coupling it to the back of the train.
In 2011, the city cut its annual $85,000 funding of the Poe house and museum. After a period of seeking bids, Cultural Resources Management Group, LLC (CRMG) was contracted by the city department of planning to draft an operating, business and financial plan for the Edgar Allan Poe House and Museum.
That contract, which was approved on August 24, 2011, called for the study to be completed in 120 days at a cost of $45,000. When CRMG failed to complete the work as outlined in the original agreement, the city paid the firm $30,000 for what work it had completed and drew up a second agreement which, upon completion, would pay CRMG the balance ($15,000) of the original contract. This second contract, which would culminate with the presentation of a plan, would run till June 15, 2012.
For nearly four months, the Baltimore Post-Examiner tried in vain to get a copy of this taxpayer funded plan prior to running our series on the plight of the Poe House. Phone logs and emails verify that the Post-Examiner was first given the runaround and then the brush off every time the subject of the plan came up. We ran the series using information obtained from published reports and a number of sources close to the situation. Subsequent news has only confirmed what we were told about the process and the consultants charged with devising the plan.
Central to the study undertaken by CRMG was the question of how to make the Poe House self-sustaining. The house, which draws somewhere between 3000-5000 visitors a year would need a program to ensure long-term viability. Unfortunately for fans of the house, the study CRMG submitted rapidly strikes down that idea.
On page 4 of the study, the report flatly states, “From this process, CRMG concluded that the house on its own is not sustainable.” After apparently dealing this death knell, the study then goes on for over one hundred pages. Forty of those pages make up the bulk of the consultant’s alternative proposals, while attachments in the forms of pictures, charts and maps are mixed with a short history of Poe, a roll of comparable house museums and a list of preliminary recommendations.
Some good news can be found in the report. First, the developer of the property across the street from the Poe house has agreed to set aside 2,000 square feet in a new building for a visitor and education center. This alone would alleviate one of the main problems which existed with the museum, that being, an entrance which was more utilitarian than enticing. A second idea in the plan would promote a broad educational outreach with an emphasis on Poe and historical literary forms. Poe celebrations at Halloween and on his January 19th birthday would also continue, though in what manner it remains to be seen. Finally, the best news for fans of the museum is it should reopen sometime in the spring of 2013.
Even so, this good news and the hope, which goes along with it, is tempered by the details of how the plan might in fact play out. Incredibly, the consultant’s report repeatedly minimizes the very attraction they were charged to save. Emphasis is shifted from a modest museum containing informational displays and artifacts to one reinterpreted to elicit a “wow” experience.
A tour would begin, not at the house, but at the B&O Museum with an introduction to Poe and an overview of the railroad’s role in his life. Visitors would then board a shuttle bus which would take them to the house where they would see whatever is left of the current collection. The consultant’s report suggests that many of the city owned artifacts in the museum be sold and empty areas filled with translucent fabric ‘scrim’ displays. One added feature of the revamped house might be a mannequin of Poe, slouched over a desk in his room, a feathered quill in hand. Once the tour of the house is complete, the visitors’ circuit will end with a drive past the cemetery where Poe is buried, “stopping briefly but not offloading.”
The cost for this experience would be five dollars. Why five? The consultants suggest that amount would “keep things simple” and the museum would not have to make change. No where in the report is an allowance made for an ATM which dispenses fives instead of twenties.
Another suggestion in the report deals with the problem of tracking attendance figures. For years, the actual attendance at the Poe House was mostly an educated guess. The suggested admittance fee of four dollars was presented to visitors as a donation. Some paid the modest fee, some did not.
Many who knew of the plight of the museum would hand the docent a twenty and say, “Just keep the change.” Jeff Jerome, the longtime curator was brutally frank when asked why records were never kept. “No one (in the city of Baltimore) ever asked me to keep the numbers.”
To address this omission, the consultant’s report suggests the museum procure a “clicker”.
One of the chief concerns of critics to the van tour idea was that it would severely limit the number of visitors to the Poe house. The report certainly bears that out.
The consultants propose that the house be open only twice a week from April through December, with no more than four tours per day. Allowing a capacity crowd on every tour, the house would only net some 1200 visitors a year. That’s far below the 3000-5000 annual visitors who previously enjoyed the convenience of parking at the Poe house and just knocking on the door. Worse for the house, with a five dollar admission price, the maximum receipts would be a mere $6,000 a year. In one fell swoop, the consultants have cost the Poe house anywhere from $6,000 – $14,000 a year while adding the burden to raise tens of thousands of dollars to cover the cost of a bus, a driver, a tour guide, transportation insurance and possibly an armed security guard.
How is it possible to sustain a small urban museum saddled with those kinds of costs? That’s easy. You do it by staging a murder mystery weekend.
If any singular proposal in the consultant’s report leaps off the pages, it is the idea of a murder mystery weekend. The consultants in fact feel so strongly about this, they mention it no less than 30 times. Attachments to the report include mystery weekend recommendations, a mystery weekend budget and even a mystery weekend time line.
The report maintains that a mystery weekend would do three things:
- “Raise the visibility of Poe as a literary figure and of his Baltimore connection”
- “Attract visitors to Baltimore”
- “Raise funds for the care and maintenance of the Poe House”
It is hard to fathom how a murder mystery weekend could in any way “raise the visibility” of this international icon. And while raising funds for the Poe House is an admirable incentive, the house already attracts hundreds, if not thousands, to Baltimore. Even the Ghost Detectives showed up at the house to find out if it is indeed haunted.
The sample budget (attachment 14) suggests a murder mystery weekend could net Poe Baltimore more than $25,000. This is of course provided that participants buy 400 t- shirts and 500 clue books for the event. Expenses, such as liquor and table linens are factored in. The cost for 200 purloined letters, a cask of amontillado, or for a nimble actor in a monkey suit are not.
The most interesting (or perhaps most damning) item in the consultant’s final report may be found on page 37. In a summary of projected budget of expenses, eleven lines down, reads the item: Consulting Services. This item is not explained in the pages which follow, but the cost of $32,500 is included in each year’s budget till 2015. There is an attachment listed in the table of contents: number 32- Code of Ethics and Conflict of Interests. That attachment, for some unknown reason, is not included in the PDF file of the consultant’s report.
There is more to this report, but the contents are almost as heartbreaking as the forlorn whistle in a Johnny Cash song. In the end, the little museum is treated like an ugly step-child and Poe the man emerges, not as Baltimore’s beloved literary icon, but rather as a convenient prop to attract tourist dollars.
The board of Poe Baltimore are good people who have been tasked with an almost impossible mission, to raise $300,000 a year to support a cockamamy plan. It is no wonder that Tom Stosur and the city department of planning hid this report from the public until it was truly too late to complain. Hopefully, the mayor and city council will take those responsible to task.
As for CRMG, the consulting firm which took $45,000 dollars of taxpayer money to come up with a plan to save an embattled museum, then suggested that $180,000 raised on the backs of true Poe fans, of kindhearted donors and innocent schoolchildren, be sunk into translucent panels and a dollar store clicker: Shame on you. The department of planning maintains you are a Maryland based firm. That may be true, but you are certainly not from Baltimore.
Several events are scheduled this Sunday to commemorate the death of Edgar Allan Poe. A wreath laying at the grave site, sponsored by the E.A. Poe Society will commence around 1:00 p.m.. This will be followed by a lecture, also sponsored by the Poe Society, at the central branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library. At 5:00, people may again gather at Westminster Hall for an event called Eulogies for Edgar Allan Poe.
Both events are free and open to the public.
The Baltimore Post-Examiner encourage you to attend. And if you do go, please say Thank You to Rafael Alvarez and Jeffrey Savoye; to Mark Redfield, Tony Tsendeas, Mark Sanders, David Keltz and particularly to Jeff Jerome. These individuals, along with countless others, have spent years of their lives keeping the memory of Edgar Allan Poe alive. As Redfield said, “The battle cry is not to cry… they are not taking Poe’s body away…”