On August 15, 1814 artist Rembrandt Peale opened his Museum and Gallery of Fine Arts at North Holiday Street in Baltimore, America’s first designed public museum. The museum, designed by Robert Cary Long, was advertised predominately as an arts and sciences museum, displaying only works of art and manufactured products.
In the weeks after the Battle for Baltimore Peale displayed the “Rockets, Bomb Shells, &c., of every description thrown into Baltimore during the bombardment.” Peale’s museum became the first to display the relics of Britain’s naval arsenal for the curiosity for those who had heard, but not seen a British shell or Congreve rocket, so eloquently noted in “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Captain Joseph Hook of the 36th U.S. Infantry at Fort McHenry donated a 190 lb. cast iron British mortar shell for exhibition at the museum. On September 28, Peale placed on exhibition the first engraving entitled “Battle of Patapsco Neck” by artist Andrew Dulac, a rifleman in the Baltimore Yagers. Such relics and paintings became a regular museum features within months after the bombardment.
On September 13, 1830 during the sixteenth anniversary of the Battle of North Point, Louisa Armistead, the widow of Lt. Colonel George Armistead, graciously loaned to the museum the original bombardment flag that had flown during the bombardment with a Mr. Mercer singing “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
That same year, the museum was sold to the City of Baltimore and used as the first City Hall until the present City Hall was built in 1875. In 1931, the building reopened as a museum, serving as the repository for the city’s historic collections as well as a venue for local artists. At its closure in 1977, the remaining artifacts were transferred to the Maryland Historical Society.
Today as we approach the 200th anniversary, the tradition of displaying relics and remembrances of the Battle for Baltimore continues at Fort McHenry and the Maryland Historical Society. Several of the “bomb bursting in air” and other relics made famous in “The Star-Spangled Banner” may be found at these sites carrying on the tradition of America’s first designed public museum.
Sources: The Peale Museum, National Historic Landmark, National Park Service; American and Commercial Daily Advertiser, August 3, 1815, July 4, 1815; Baltimore Patriot, January 11, 1815; Bernard B. Perlman, “The City Hall, Baltimore,” Maryland Historical Magazine 47 (March 1952): 40-54; Sun October 19, 1997.