Compassion, Steel, and You: 3 New SoBo Exhibits Open

Peninsula Post contributor John Thomas reviews the latest art, history, and science offerings from our local cultural institutions: the American Visionary Art Museum, the Baltimore Museum of Industry, and the Maryland Science Center. (This story originally appeared in Issue #4 of the Peninsula Post newspaper, published December 4, 2021.) Museum hours and websites are listed in our SoBo Events calendar.

A matchstick sculpture depicts violinist Isaac Stern’s fearlessness during a wartime concert at the American Visionary Art Museum’s exhibition dealing with healing and compassion.

The Art of Healing and Compassion (and Lack Thereof!)

American Visionary Art Museum, 800 Key Highway

AVAM is no stranger to pushing the boundaries of what a timely and relevant art exhibit can be. Its newest exhibit – backed by scientific research, case studies, and original and eccentric art pieces – seeks to prove that acts of kindness and compassion can positively impact our personal and collective health.

The exhibit, which opened in October and runs through September 2022, showcases true sources of love and compassion through a variety of mixed media. It also explores what happens when there is a lack of compassion and what we can do to address that. It’s the museum’s twenty-sixth “thematic” exhibit, according to AVAM director Rebecca Hoffberger, who is the exhibit’s primary curator.

Pieces from the exhibit can be seen as soon as you walk into the museum. A small boat suspended from the ceiling above the entrance hallway is accompanied by a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr.: “We may all come on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.”

The exhibit occupies much of the second floor. Three rooms and halls contain paintings and statues and a television displaying short films, animated pieces, and documentaries on love and overcoming hatred.

A series of matchstick sculptures by Gerald Hawkes is particularly moving. From miniature houses to life-sized busts, Hawkes began meticulously crafting the matchstick art at a low point in his life when he struggled with homelessness, disease, and addiction. One figure based on violinist Isaac Stern has a clock hidden on the back of his head to symbolize how he put his fears in the back of his mind as he played a concert in Israel during the Gulf War. The clock’s time is set to when Iraqi missiles began falling nearby.

“People are like matchsticks,” reads a quote by Hawkes. “Each of us has the capacity to give light, or not. My work shows what beauty and strength can happen when people work together.”

Quotations are a focal point of the “Art of Healing,” as they are in many AVAM exhibits. Plaques with thought-provoking ideas are scattered throughout, examining how love impacts the human experience and how the lack of it manifests itself in all aspects of society. Why is it, for example, that the United States has the largest incarcerated population? How is it that money is at the root of a lot of trouble and yet also the solution to many of our problems?

“The Art of Healing” confronts us with many tough, fundamental issues and encourages us to delve into them. Especially in today’s troubling times, we could all use a bit of love and compassion to help get through it together.

A replica 30,000-pound steel coil unspools in front of visitors to the Baltimore Museum of Industry’s exhibit on Bethlehem Steel.

Fire and Shadow: The Rise and Fall of Bethlehem Steel

Baltimore Museum of Industry, 1415 Key Highway

The BMI is all about giving you a deep dive into Baltimore’s long and rich history as an industrial city. Its new exhibit on Bethlehem Steel, which opened in September, depicts the major role that steelmaking played in Baltimore while showcasing the harsh realities of the industry. Like most BMI exhibits, the aptly named “Fire and Shadow” focuses visitors’ attention on the human side of industry, showing the work through the perspective of the steel workers themselves.

The exhibit tells the story of the Sparrows Point Steel Mill, at its peak the largest producer of steel in the world. The mill, owned and operated by Bethlehem Steel, provided steel for World War II ships and parts of the Empire State Building, and employed over 30,000 workers.

The work was steady and essential, especially during the industrial boom, but it was also grueling and dangerous. Poisonous gases, explosions, suffocating heat, and heavy machinery all contributed to the harsh work environment that was Sparrows Point Steel Mill.

Signage on the exhibit drives the point home: “If you want an example of what hell would look like, go to the blast furnace.”

The exhibit also demonstrates howthe demanding conditions of the work functioned as a catalyst for workers to put aside differences. While racism and sexism were prevalent, the exhibit states, those who indulged such biases would find themselves incompatible with the workflow, which could have deadly consequences.

The exhibit includes photographs, first-person testimonials, and original artifacts. A worker’s bicycle is featured between the steel mill display and the section on Sparrows Point Shipyard, as the two places were adjacent in real life.

Set in front of the exhibit is a replica of a 30,000-pound steel coil, unspooling along the length of the display wall. The sheet of steel functions as a timeline of the mill’s life, from 1916 when it was purchased by Bethlehem Steel to its closing in 2012.

The wall behind the coil showcases photos and narratives of the lives impacted by the mill: the hardships the workers faced, the community they built, and the relationship between the mill and the rest of the city. We learn about the company town that formed around the mill, the progress of unionization, and the workers’ battle to reduce the stigma that steel workers were expendable.

The exhibit concludes with a large image of the top of a vat of molten steel, painted on the floor for visitors to peer into. “Fire and Shadow” is a permanent addition to the museum, so there’s plenty of time to visit.

Visitors to the Maryland Science Center’s exhibit on the human body play with an oversized version of the “Operation” game. Photo by John Thomas.

You: The Inside Story

Maryland Science Center, 601 Light Street

The Center continues its tradition of teaching and explaining science in a fun and interactive way in its newest permanent exhibit, “You: The Inside Story,” which opened on November 19. Known for its immersive educational experiences, the Center delivers scientific facts in a compelling way that sticks with you.

The exhibit, the first sponsored by Johns Hopkins Medicine, has been in development for four years as a major component of the Center’s efforts to refresh its exhibits, which also includes new displays that reflect our scientific understanding of the “new normal” brought about by Covid.

The 12,000-square-foot exhibit on the second floor is packed with dozens of hands-on activities that encourage you to discover for yourself your physical capabilities and limitations. A wall of buttons lights up one by one so that visitors can test their reaction time. A bed of nails invites anyone to lay on it to showcase how, due to weight distribution, the body won’t be punctured.

Some of the best activities involve more than one person and encourage a little competition. The “distortion goggles” activity has participants don eyewear that purposely skew your field of vision. With their vision impaired, participants try to toss beanbags into one of the holes in a wall in front of them.

Other displays explain the importance of nose hair, demonstrate the wonders of eyesight and visual perception, and test specific physical characteristics such as grip strength and even calmness. If you’re interested in learning more about your own biology, this exhibit is worth the trip.

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