Volume XVII, Issue 17 # April 23 - April 29, 2009

A Few Priceless Pages of History

This kind of money usually goes to the big guys. It never comes to the little guys.

Bayside History Museum figures out how to welcome Capt. John Smith

by Margaret Tearman

It’s not even May, and already 2009 has been a good year for the Bayside History Museum.

An anonymous donor rang in the New Year with a Smithsonian-sized gift for the small North Beach museum: a rare 1632 edition of explorer Capt. John Smith’s book, The Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles: With the Names of the Adventurers, Planters, and Governours From Their First Beginning Ano 1584 to This Present 1626.

For the little museum, the gift is nothing short of a miracle. But with the gift comes unprecedented responsibility.

A Priceless Gift

Like thousands of small museums across the country, the Bayside History Museum rides on the backs of volunteers who toil for love. In these days of shrinking donations, they struggle for the means to keep the doors open.

A gift on this scale opens a grand opportunity for the tiny museum.

The extremely rare book is “the only one in Maryland,” says Grace Mary Brady, board president of Bayside History Museum. “The donor is a friend who wanted me to have this book because she knew that I would take care of it and share it.”

But caring and sharing come with a hefty price tag. Insurance alone will likely cost more than the museum has in its coffers — not to mention conservation issues and security concerns.

“To exhibit such a priceless artifact will be a real learning process,” Brady says. “We’re lucky so many people are excited to help.”

Big help came from the Maryland General Assembly, which approved Calvert Del. Sue Kullen’s $50,000 bond bill to upgrade the museum’s infrastructure to secure and exhibit the book.

“This kind of money usually goes to the big guys like the Marine Museum and Annemarie Garden,” Brady says. “It never comes to the little guys.”

Dare to Dream

Capt. John Smith, born in 1580, was an English soldier, sailor and author. Smith helped establish the first permanent English settlement in North America at Jamestown, Virginia. And he was the first European to explore Chesapeake Bay.

“Smith’s book provides an excellent summary of his explorations,” says Wayne Clark, author of John Smith’s Chesapeake Voyages, 1607-1609. “It is a fantastic source of knowledge and very important to our understanding of the Bay.”

Clark, who has studied John Smith for 40 years, is thrilled by the gift.

“Smith began to create the American dream as we know it,” Clark says. “He wrote that by your hard work, your own hand, your own study, you can become successful and master of your own life. This was very radical for his time.”

Smith’s message of hope led millions of people with a dream to the New World over the next four centuries.

Brady’s dream is that the rare book will lead visitors to Bayside History Museum. 

Making it Happen

Other conservation facilities and larger museums have offered to house and exhibit the book, but Brady says her little museum will manage.

“My friend gave the book to our museum because she wanted us to have it, knowing small museums aren’t usually recipients of such gifts,” Brady says. “If she wanted the National Archives to have it, she would have given it to them. I have to honor the donor’s wish.”

Energized by the $50,000 state bond, Brady is confident the museum will rise to the challenge.

“We value and take the opinion of the experts on the proper care and conservation of this rare manuscript,” she says. “This bond bill helps us move in the right direction.”

Brady and Clark hope this gift will inspire other small museums to work with potential donors.

“John Smith would be proud to know his book went to a small museum that exists because of dedication and hard work,” Clark says. “This museum has been rewarded with a great gift.”

The museum hopes to exhibit the book at its open house in October.

Bayside History Museum, 9006 Dayton Ave., North Beach: 301-855-4645; www.baysidehistorymuseum.org