- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 5, 2005

The Baltimore Public Works Museum offers visitors a glimpse into the city’s infrastructure by explaining the technology behind wastewater treatment, showcasing the history of trash handling and displaying methods of recycling, including contemporary art that reuses such things as manhole covers.

“We blend these ingredients to make it less dense, more digestible,” says Mari Ross, museum director.

But it’s still a museum devoted to explaining city infrastructure — whether through art or artifacts — and why should we care?

“I think people take it for granted: the street signs, the electricity, the clean water, the trash collection. But imagine if we didn’t have any of that.” Ms. Ross says.

About 100 years ago, Baltimore didn’t. Families would use cheesecloth to filter water full of rocks and sand, not to mention bacteria and parasites. Waterborne illnesses such as typhoid fever, cholera and dysentery were common.

Trash and wastewater would be thrown out the window to a large wooden gutter that lined the streets. From there, stray animals would feast on the waste, and rainwater and gravity would send the rest downhill.

“Can you imagine the stench at the bottom of a hill? That’s why all the mansions were located on top of a hill, away from the stench,” Ms. Ross says.

Increasing health concerns as the city kept growing, the advancement of technology and the fire of 1904 prompted city officials to improve the handling of water, Ms. Ross says.

In 1912, the Eastern Avenue Pumping Station, in which the museum is housed, was built. It is still in use — aside from the small portion occupied by the museum — and pumps about a third of the city’s wastewater to a water treatment plant six miles away.

The pumping station, a brick building with ornamental architecture that includes columns and turrets, signifies the type of public buildings constructed at the turn of the last century, Ms. Ross says.

“It was a time when certain services that had been private became public,” she says. “Making these grand buildings was supposed to instill confidence in the public.”

Also mentioned is local 20th-century scientist Abel Wolman’s work on the chlorination of drinking water.

“Now his formula is used all over the world,” Ms. Ross says.

The museum also touches on trash handling, but a more in-depth look will be offered when the “Let’s Talk Trash” exhibit opens in January.

There are three main ways to take care of trash, Ms. Ross says. Some of the 750 tons of trash Baltimore households produce every day is burned, some of it ends up in a landfill, and some of it is recycled.

To many people, recycling means turning old newspapers into new newspapers and old glass bottles into new glass bottles. However, recycling also can mean using old, used items in art, such as Scott Cawood’s “Crane Cools Its Wings,” a crane sculpture made of car parts, which is displayed at the museum.

Another showcased artist who uses recycled items is Bobbi Mastrangelo. She uses old manhole covers in her art.

“A lot of people think recycling is new, but people have always recycled in some form,” Ms. Ross says.

Belgian blocks, for example, are large stone blocks that were used as ballast in ships coming from Europe in the early 20th century. When the ships made their return trips packed full of tobacco, they no longer needed the blocks for ballast. The abandoned blocks went to good use in paving Baltimore streets.

The exhibits have some interactive games for children, who also can take part in a museum scavenger hunt that asks questions about sanitary lines and manhole covers.

Another family-friendly part of the museum is “Streetscape,” an outside exhibit of pipes and tunnels through which children can climb. This outdoor area also features picnic tables and a view of the Inner Harbor. Visitors also can tour the still-in-use pumping station if accompanied by a docent.

“I hope that families have an enjoyable time here, but I also hope that they will get an understanding of public works. … It’s kind of like we’re running a household on a giant scale,” Ms. Ross says.

Or, as one of the exhibits states, “Public works is the basic infrastructure upon which modern civilization rests.”

When you go:

What: Baltimore Public Works Museum

Location: 751 Eastern Ave., Baltimore

Directions: From the Capital Beltway, take Interstate 295 north into Baltimore. Once downtown, make a right onto West Pratt Street. After about a mile, make a right onto South Presidents Street. Then make a quick right onto Eastern Avenue. The museum will be on the right.

Hours: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday

Parking: Limited metered parking and pay-parking garages are available.

Admission: $3 for adults and $2.50 for students; free for children age 5 and younger.

Information: 410/396-5565

Notes: The museum is located in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor at Pier 7. Plenty of restaurants and other attractions are nearby.

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