Terri Lee Freeman faced great expectations as she returned to Maryland in 2021. After five years at the head of the National Civil Rights Museum, located in the Memphis motel where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, she was becoming the executive director of the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture in Baltimore.
Museum supporters and leaders were enthralled by her experience and vision, as well as her background in philanthropy, having previously served for 18 years as the president of the Greater Washington Community Foundation. Freeman, 62, came aboard at a pivotal moment: Baltimore and the nation were reckoning with the racial injustice that boiled over after the murder of George Floyd. Museum operations had not fully returned to their pre-pandemic state, and Baltimore was reeling from violence.
Not long after taking the position, personal tragedy hit. Freeman’s husband, Rev. Dr. Bowyer G. Freeman, a longtime pastor and past Howard County NAACP president, died unexpectedly in January 2022. Freeman’s professional obligations briefly became secondary.
But she has persisted, and in the past year, the museum has unveiled an ambitious strategic plan that aims to grow its annual visitors from 13,000 to 70,000 within a few years, as well as increase its endowment by 25 percent and launch a capital campaign in advance of the museum’s 25th anniversary in 2030.
Freeman spoke with Baltimore Fishbowl via Zoom this month about the role of the institution in the city and the state, and how to attract the widest possible audience. She wants to recapture the excitement and pride when the museum opened – and amplify it for a new generation. As she told us, “We have to make history connect to contemporary.” This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Baltimore Fishbowl: February 2023 will mark two years in your current role. What have been the biggest eye-openers now that you’ve been here and have some time under your belt at the Lewis Museum?
Terri Lee Freeman: One of them is that this is a really tough media market to get attention in. I don’t know why it is, but it has been very hard to garner media attention. I came from a museum that – literally – whenever the National Civil Rights Museum said anything, we had everybody in the media at the museum covering it. Not so much here at the Lewis Museum, but we’re trying to develop that.
I think the other thing is that I do think there is a fondness for this place, even though I found that many people haven’t been back to visit the museum in a very long time. There’s this nostalgia around how the museum was started, and what a proud moment that was for Baltimore and for African Americans. But then some people say to me, ‘Oh, you know, I’ve never been; I’ve never walked through the galleries,’ or, ‘Boy, it’s been a long time since I’ve visited the museum.’” So our goal really is to get people back into the museum, to take a look again at the permanent exhibition, but also to come visit us when we have our changing exhibitions and installations.
BFB: Let’s talk about the changing exhibitions. What’s the thought process of what an exhibit should be to draw an audience and garner attention?
TLF: If we just live in the realm of history, we cut off a portion of our audience. And if we just live in the realm of art and culture, we will cut off another set of visitors. So we have to be able to combine the two. We have to make history connect to contemporary. While ultimately museum-goers tend to be on the older side, we have to grow younger visitors. because there’ll be around longer.
We had a Smithsonian exhibit called ‘Men of Change’ that was incredibly visual, and both historic and contemporary. As a culture and art exhibit it hit all of the right notes. We were the first museum on the East Coast that showed the entire exhibit. Part of what we’re trying to do is, in many ways, correct the narrative, or challenge the current narrative. So to present an exhibit that talked about all of the positive things that African American men have contributed or are contributing to society certainly goes contrary to the message that we hear on a on a daily basis, about Black men — how scary they are — versus Black men as contributors and culture creators.
We try to present things that are going to make people look at things differently. My thinking is really, if you come to this museum, if you believe the same way you came, we’re not doing our job. If you don’t come and at least have some questions, or begin to think about things differently, or have a desire to learn more about something, then we are really not doing justice to what an institution like this should do.
We have an exhibition coming up — The Afro-Futurist Manifesto: Blackness Reimagined — the whole idea is around Afro-futurism and what is going to be the future state of African Americans. It’s got a science fiction edge to it, but it also has a reality edge to it. And I think it’s going to present the idea of the future for black people in a very different light. [The exhibit is being curated by Venice Biennale in Italy and being shared in Baltimore.]
BFB: There are a lot of people who don’t come to downtown much at all in Baltimore. You sit on the Downtown Partnership board, among your other responsibilities. How do you see the role of the museum in downtown Baltimore?
TLF: I think arts and culture institutions are real draws for people to come into a community. Because arts and culture is important to people. It’s a release for people. One of the issues that I have found — and I’ve talked to the Downtown Partnership about this, as well as Visit Baltimore, and we are working on rectifying it — is that there’s no signage in Downtown Baltimore that talks about these incredible tourist spots. You see something about the aquarium and that’s about it. You don’t see anything about the Lewis; you don’t see signage downtown or on the freeway about the Walters and the BMA. And, again, where I come from, tourism was a big part of what made Memphis Memphis. So there were signs everywhere about how to get to these places, and to draw people into the community.
But I also think it is how we talk about the city. If all we talk about is the incidents around squeegeeing, or whatever else, and don’t talk about the other good things that are going on in the city, then of course, that’s what people that’s what’s going to come to mind.
I think what we have to do is this whole idea of changing the narrative to talk about how creative of a community Baltimore is. I mean, the creative class here is off the charts, right? And you have people who have who have migrated from Baltimore to other communities and are making it really big. So what we want to do, I think, is we want to concentrate on the creative class that is here and how they are creating this kind of hip, funky city that is Baltimore, Maryland, great for younger people, great for older people, walkable in many ways.
BFB: Talk to me about your fundraising efforts that are going on right now. I saw in your annual report an appropriation that Sen. Van Hollen helped secure.
TLF: The Van Hollen funds were specifically for an installation that we are doing with the Maryland Lynching Memorial Project on the individuals that are known to have been lynched in the state of Maryland. There are 38 names that we know of, and there will be an installation within the permanent exhibition that will define lynching and will identify the victims of lynching. The Maryland Lynching Memorial Project has actually collected soil from many of the lynching sites, and so we will incorporate that into it. And then we’re going to fast forward to the fact that now we don’t necessarily hang people from trees, but we still lynch people in this country. And many times they are black men whose lives are snuffed out because of drug charges that are minor, but once it’s on your record, your ability to live in a productive manner can be very, very difficult. So we want to talk about what is the modern-day equivalent, and how do we ensure that people’s lives are not snuffed out for small infractions.
We don’t want to re traumatize people who maybe have already had to deal with a lot of trauma. But we also don’t want to sugarcoat what lynching was, what lynching is, yeah, so it will be a careful balance.
Additionally, the state of Maryland provided us with $4.5 million toward a capital campaign to fully renovate the third-floor permanent exhibition. It will require about $15 million to renovate that entire floor….I think we won’t really launch the capital campaign in total, until the second half of this year, the goal would be to raise somewhere in the neighborhood of about $25 million dollars….The goal is to have the third floor renovated in time for what would be its 25th anniversary in 2030.
BFB: I’ve read a little bit about this strategic plan that you developed. It says you need to expand outreach, with a specific reference to reaching out to 11 counties in Maryland and you have a visitor growth plan too. How are you going to implement that strategic plan?
TLF: Some of that is outreach and making sure that people know that we are available. One of the big parts of making this happen is working with school systems and helping them develop or provide them with tools so that they can teach this history. There is no standard curriculum. The goal for us would be to be used as a resource so we could provide an outline, or first source materials, or a reading list, or a documentary list that allows educators to better be able to teach this history to students. Because the fact of the matter is, when you don’t teach this history, you don’t teach the entire story. And Maryland’s history is so fascinating, because Maryland was a border state. Border states were kind of were lukewarm: they were sympathetic to slavery, and sympathetic to freedom. Baltimore City had more free blacks than anyplace else in the country at that time, yet they walked side by side with those who were enslaved. What must it have been like to live in a community like this? And how did that impact the nation?
We have a responsibility to get out to other parts of the state, and tell people that we are here. And so one of the things that I had hoped to do in 2022, was really begin to do some of that. And unfortunately, I had a family situation that took my attention away for several months. My husband died suddenly in January of last year, so that took me away from kind of the focus that I had, but I feel like I’m back in it. And this year will be one of those years, where I try to get around connect to other cultural institutions in these other counties. And figure out how we can partner with some of them.
BFB: Now that you’ve moved back to Maryland, what are your favorite things about Baltimore about being in the city?
TLF: I love the vibe that is Baltimore. Baltimore is kind of quirky, kind of funky, kind of hip. It has the right level of sophistication. It is not a pretentious city. It’s a welcoming city. I find it actually very similar to Memphis except Memphis has the southern overtone. But I love the food scene here in Baltimore. I love the people who are so invested in the city, who really want the city to be better. And I love the I love the arts and culture community.
BFB: When you fulfill your vision in 10 years, how will the museum be different than it is today?
TLF: I think the Lewis Museum will be well-visited. I think having a target of somewhere in the neighborhood of 65,000 to 75,000 visitors annually is not out of the question. I think that it will be seen almost as a ‘third space’ if you will, a place where people can come and congregate and enjoy what there is to see in the museum, but also maybe just sit and chat and have a cup of coffee and be a place where people can meet. I also would like to see us as a place that is teeming with young people during the weekdays during the school year, where young people are taking field trips to the museum or doing projects at the museum or doing research. We have over 11,000 objects in our collection, and to be able to have that searchable for people to do research and learn about these items would be a game-changer.
I love this museum, and some of the exhibits and many performers have been outstanding. Two things would help: a cafe/ restaurant, though it might have to be subsidized until the visitor numbers increase, and the museum shop, which has been inconsistent, and should and could be a draw on its own, like AVAM’s and the BMA’s
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