Greg Alexander

Hands-on history

Maryland Family, December 2004

Taking children to a museum can be a daunting task. Many parents spend the entire day watching their kids to make sure hands are in pockets, not touching the exhibits, and are always fearful of turning their backs only to hear a “crash” coming from the location of their child. You want them to learn something new, but will they be bored after 15 minutes and be screaming to go home or to the nearest pizza place?

Fear not. There is a museum that not only allows but also encourages your kids to touch everything. A museum where kids and parents alike will learn history, science, language arts, social science and math — and have fun doing it. Welcome to the Baltimore Museum of Industry (, a unique hands-on museum at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor where the whole family can step back in time and learn Baltimore’s crucial role in taking the United States through the Industrial Revolution and into the 21st century.

Founded in 1977 as a project of the Mayor’s Office, the Baltimore Museum of Industry (BMI) focuses on Baltimore’s rich industrial history and the men and women who forged it, many of whom where immigrants from Germany, Ireland, Poland, Italy, among others. “Then Mayor William Schaefer was concerned that Baltimore’s industrial heritage was fading away, so a group of men and women teamed up to save a piece of Baltimore history,” says Claire Mullins, communications director for the BMI. In 1981, the BMI incorporated as a private nonprofit educational institution and moved to the historic Platt Oyster Cannery on Key Highway. “It’s fun for the kids to walk around this 1865 building where oysters were shucked and canned, and then they get to recreate what the workers were doing almost 150 years ago in the same space,” says Mullins. “We want kids and parents to learn and appreciate history but have fun while doing it. Everything is very interactive and fun,” she continues.

Mullins notes that the BMI is unique in that the tours are guided by paid “museum teachers,” many of who come from a teaching background. Visitors walk through and the museum and watch history come alive, as they visit a 1900s corner grocery store, print shop, garment shop and Bunting Pharmacy where Noxzema was invented. Visitors may be surprised to learn that the world’s first disposable bottle cap was invented in Baltimore, which was also home to America’s first umbrella factory. Kids are awed by the enormous 1937 Mini-Mariner, a prototype of the WWII flying boat bomber, that hangs from ceiling, as well as a 1922 steam roller and a 1914 moving van.

Mullins notes that of the 160,000 annual visitors to the BMI, 68,000 are schoolchildren on field trips. “We have programs tailored to pre-K children all the way up to high school students,” says Tricia Edwards, BMI’s education director. A trip to the BMI for classes includes the guided tour and educational programs that teachers select prior to their trip. Each program lasts 60 to 90 minutes, says Edwards, and most teachers book multiple programs so that they can spend the day at the BMI. The museum also provides space for lunch. “Our programs focus on different areas of study, and we can tailor programs for specific needs,” says Edwards.

Edwards says that for small children (kindergarten to second grade), the “In My Neighborhood” program is popular. Students become tailors, grocers, bankers and pharmacists and learn about working and living in a community. Students are paid for their work and learn the value of hard work. “We teach that all hard work is valued,” says Mullins.

One of the most popular educational programs is the “Kids’ Cannery” set in an 1883 oyster cannery. “It was our first educational program, and teachers and kids get so much out of this program; they learn history, economics and sociology by learning how opportunities differed for immigrants, African-Americans and white workers,” says Edwards. Children assume the identity of an actual Baltimore immigrant and are assigned a job title — management, label maker, oyster shucker, loader or oyster filler. Shuckers actually shuck oyster shells — with safe, dulled down tools — that have been glued back together and contain marbles to depict oysters, while other kids make cardboard cans. Label makers affix special labels, and other kids fill the cans with the marbles.

Students are “paid” with tokens based on their job title. “It’s fun to see the kids discuss why they were paid so much less than the managers, who they feel just sat around all day,” says Mullins. Kids must then redeem their tokens in the company store. “All money in those times was spent at the company store to pay rent and buy food and clothing. In essence, every dollar was going right back to your boss,” says Mullins. “They get to the store thinking that they are going to buy toys, and once they pay their rent and buy food, there’s not much left,” adds Edwards. “They also learn about how children worked in these canneries, and suddenly school doesn’t look so bad.”

Other popular programs, says Edwards, is the “Kids’ MotorWorks” program where kids recreate a 1914 moving van and learn how Henry Ford revolutionized the automobile industry with the assembly line. Kids sit in a recreated assembly line, and each child is assigned a task. “The students perform the same job all day and learn how efficient it is to work together. It focuses on the concept that everyone’s job is equally important,” says Edwards.

Middle and high school students benefit from “The Garment Loft” program, says Mullins, where students sew pockets for vests. Then, management arrives and announces that the company has purchased an electric shears company and may have to lay off workers. The students break into groups and discuss whether they should unionize and strike. The BMI’s newest exhibit, “Painting the Town,” focuses on the history of the paint industry in Baltimore and includes interactive learning stations where students learn the science of color and the role it plays in our daily lives. Edwards adds that the BMI also offers days set aside for home schooled students.

In addition to tours and programs, the BMI also sponsors the Maryland Engineering Challenges for students in grades 1 through 12 where students work on a project in areas such as bridge construction, recycling, space technology and shipping, which is then demonstrated at the BMI. On weekends, the BMI organizes family days where families can work together on projects such as bridge building and lampshade construction, as well as tasks related to the holidays.

“The weekend activities are great; kids learn so much,” says Martha Martin of Timonium, who says that her family is a “museum family.” “We’re members of several museums, and we love the BMI. A lot of people don’t know about it, which is a shame, because kids learn so much about child labor laws and women’s role in the workplace. Kids like to touch things and do things. Here, they get to cut fabrics, use sewing machines and use a printing press.”

Martin says that she chaperoned a class trip to the BMI and loved it so much that she decided to have her son’s 9th birthday party there. “The kids had a blast. Everything is hands-on, and they learned a lot from the staff, which are all so wise and wonderful. I teach early childhood education at Towson University, and I was really impressed by their knowledge and teaching skills.” While parents bring the food and beverages, the BMI provides the entertainment, Martin says.

The BMI is open Monday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. The museum is closed Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

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