The National Building Museum’s newest exhibition is a time machine. More than most museums in D.C., the Building Museum excels at injecting you into a moment. Architecture of an Asylum made us feel as if you were walking through the doors of St. Elizabeths (it didn’t hurt that they had the actual doors), Small Stories: At Home in a Dollhouse turned us into life sized dolls in a life sized doll house (complete with a 17th century maid costume) and Flickering Treasures: Rediscovering Baltimore’s Forgotten Theaters follows in those foot steps. Starting with the humble Nickelodeons and finishing with the destruction of one of America’s finest theater towns, the Building Museum chronicles the history of cinema and the history of Baltimore in one fell swoop.
Kicking off in the 1860’s, the exhibition explores the 240 movie theaters that have flourished (and failed) in Baltimore for the last 150 years. Ephemera like postcards, posters, matchbooks and multi-colored tickets are sprinkled all over the exhibition. And larger items like threadbare theater seats, stained glass EXIT signs and the intricate pendant lights that would hang in the ritzy theater palaces are placed around every corner, but it’s photojournalist Amy Davis’ present day photography that makes the exhibition feel alive.
It’s easy to get lost in the past. You can imagine the raucous crowds of the neighborhood theaters and the luxury of Electric Park. You can even kick back and watch an old time-y nickelodeon reel, jam packed with Daffy Duck cartoons and news clips from 1937, but more than anything, this is a story of preservation gone wrong. Davis’ photos bring this focus from the early 1900’s to present day, showing where all those movie theaters are now… and how they look. A lot of it is grim. There are empty fields, parking lots and photos of active demolition, but there is also a flash of hope. Many of the old neighborhood theaters now serve as neighborhood churches, a few of which have done the painstaking work of maintaining the intricate facades of the theaters.
Nothing drives this home more than the giant map of theaters featured in the exhibition. Of the 74 theaters referenced in Flickering Treasures, five of them are active movie theaters and three have been transformed into live theaters. The rest of them have been razed, abandoned, transformed into something else or are in danger of demolition. In the age of Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime and a host of even more niche streaming services, it’s clear that Baltimore audiences aren’t craving the same amount of dazzling cinema complexes as they were in the 1950s, but Davis’ photos and the National Building exhibition is a rallying cry to preserve as much of that history as we can.