BALTIMORE — Over two centuries since Rembrandt Peale opened the first building constructed as a museum in the United States in 1814, the long-dormant space in Baltimore is again alive with art and oddities. H.T. Darling’s Incredible Musaeum Presents: The Treasures of New Galapagos, Astonishing Acquisitions from the Perisphere is an immersive theatrical experience sprawling through the former Peale Museum’s rooms, from exhibition halls to tiny attic crannies, inviting audiences to attend the opening night of a new display of wonders.
Unlike Peale’s mastodon skeleton, art, and natural specimens, these artifacts are said to be transported from another planet, with a complex narrative of time travel, colonialism, and authenticity for visitors to unravel. Each person, though, can only get a glimpse of the whole, as you choose your own adventure by following characters, from Maxilla (Trustina Sabah) of New Galapagos, who does not understand why she is a “specimen,” to H. T. Darling (Sarah Olmsted Thomas) himself as he attempts to control these alien objects for his own spectacle.
The Peale Museum was lushly lit with gas light in the 19th century, a follow up to Peale’s Philadelphia Museum, opened by Rembrandt’s father Charles Willson Peale in his home. While the Baltimore building was used as a school and municipal museum into the 20th century, in 1997 it closed due to a lack of funding. Now called the Peale Center, the institution’s aim is to restore and reopen the building as a museum of local history. In the meantime, H.T. Darling’s Incredible Musaeum, created by Submersive Productions based on a concept by Lisi Stoessel, and running through May 14, is a dynamic match for the space’s architectural history. The production follows Submersive’s 2015 The Mesmeric Revelations! of Edgar Allan Poe, inspired by Poe’s writing and staged in Baltimore’s Enoch Pratt House, the 1840s home’s first public event since 2004.
“Activating historic spaces is definitely a love of ours, and part of our stated mission,” Glenn Ricci, co-artistic director of Submersive, told Hyperallergic. “In the case of the Peale and the Pratt House, we took a space that was mostly unoccupied and set out to show people what could be done with it.” While audience members initially explore a lower level, where specimens such as a vampiric butterfly and fiji mermaid (not unlike that exhibited by P. T. Barnum, surely an inspiration for the boisterous Darling) hint at a darkness to come, more and more rooms slowly are unlocked as the two-hour experience goes on.
I found myself with three other audience members in Maxilla’s attic hideaway, answering her questions of “What is a friend?” or “What is trust?” in a surprisingly candid way. Later there was a frantic scene in which she, Darling’s “humanoid,” has gone missing from where she was meant to have her debut. Although it was unnerving for the one black woman in the cast to also be this “other,” her portrayal empathetically recalled women like Sarah Baartman or Julia Pastrana, who were similarly treated as displays. At one point in a back room, eerily illuminated with red light, Dr. Percy Warner (Alex Vernon) asked three of us how he could appear in photographs of places he had not been, and whether science could really explain everything. (He played off my suggestion that there was a The Shining thing happening with the photographs with earnest fear.) In a corner of the room was a colossal, crumpled, faux-taxidermy rhinoceros, its deflated might echoing the imperial destruction lurking in the museum.
Some of these scenes may only be experienced by a handful of audience members, like the elaborately dressed curators Maude and Carol salivating over the potential to steal a prized artifact when questioned on morality by Dr. Vernon, or a stage where two puppets act out a fatal day on New Galapagos. And there are quite a few puppets, which work well within the whimsical context of the piece, like a delightful bird made with an icepick, gelatinous jellyfish-like creatures, an elaborate badger-like being that seems to summon a celestial portal, and a moving eyeball that was among the shelves of curios, apparently the resurrected remains of an unfortunate fellow explorer. Many of the puppets in the museum displays (involving work by around 20 artists) are activated by gloved hands that emerge from behind curtains. Even Peale’s mastodon manifests from skeletal parts in a climactic scene.
I did find myself wanting more insight into the museum’s secrets. The bounty of information, scenes, and rooms made it hard to focus on just one story line, leaving a fragmented narrative in my mind. Yet even if I’m not sure what it all meant, it’s a lovingly crafted installation of art, activated by actors who excel when they engage the audience as individuals in their tangle of stories. As Ricci stated, “A building that was unoccupied and largely ignored is now the site of an experience that our guests will remember for a very long time.”
H.T. Darling’s Incredible Musaeum Presents: The Treasures of New Galapagos, Astonishing Acquisitions from the Perisphere continues through May 14 at the Peale Center (225 Holliday Street, Baltimore, Maryland).