By Anita Kassof, Beth Maloney, and Auni Gelles
Fall 2021 marks three years since the Baltimore Museum of Industry began our Bethlehem Steel Legacy Project, a multiyear project to document and tell the story of the Bethlehem Steel mill at Sparrows Point—once the largest steel plant in the world. We’re sharing a behind-the-scenes update on where we stand with the project, especially in light of the pandemic, as we prepare to open “Fire & Shadow: The Rise and Fall of Bethlehem Steel.”
Much of the work that took place during the pandemic was only possible because of the relationships we had built in the first phase of the project. Community engagement consultant Deb Weiner got to know many former steelworkers and residents of the company town by attending meetings of community and retiree associations between late 2018 and early 2020. The BMI had a table at Tradepoint Atlantic open houses and the Dundalk Heritage Fair in 2019. Museum staff attended events such as the Henrietta Lacks Legacy Group annual luncheon, steelworkers’ bull roast, and the Company Town reunion at Todd’s Inheritance. We hosted story sharing programs at the Sollers Point and North Point branches of the Baltimore County Public Library and discussions at venues like Motor House and BMA Lexington Market in early 2020. We also sought input from museum visitors and stakeholders in 2019 and early 2020, asking what they already knew about Sparrows Point and what they wished to learn more about.
When the pandemic hit in March of 2020, the museum closed its doors to visitors and staff began working remotely. We realized that we needed to employ new ways of working to continue this community-focused project. How would we maintain connections and relationships when so many of our ways of working had changed? We revisited the project’s core values—transparency, inclusion, authenticity, uncertainty and integrity—to remind ourselves of the bigger picture. We drew on the relationships we’d built during the first half of the project to buoy us through this tough time. We built on these essential relationships in three concrete ways.
Podcast and online programming
In mid-2020, when we found ourselves unable to offer programming either at the museum and or around the Dundalk area, we opted to try something new. Together with producer Aaron Henkin and our local NPR affiliate, WYPR, we conceived of a limited edition podcast series called “Sparrows Point: An American Steel Story.” Guided by the relationships we built early on, Aaron interviewed about 20 former steel workers, union organizers, Bethlehem Steel executives, scholars, and investors who are redeveloping the site of the former plant. A new episode “dropped” each week between late January and early March 2021. All episodes are available for free on the BMI website, WYPR website, and anywhere you find podcasts.
This form of audio storytelling resonated well both with those intimately involved in the story and those who had never heard of Bethlehem Steel. Between its debut in January 2021 and the time of this publication in September 2021, the podcast has been downloaded about 28,000 times by listeners all over the world—a far broader reach than any of the museum’s previous programs—and has won a prestigious MUSE award from the American Alliance of Museums. It also provided a channel for those with an interest in the Sparrows Point story to take a deep dive into this history and connect with the museum to participate in future programming.
Documentation and collection
In our collections and archives department, we were ahead of schedule when it came to inventorying our existing collection of Bethlehem Steel materials and integrating new objects and archival documents. Many materials came to us from Tradepoint Atlantic, the new stewards of the mill site (and generous funders of the museum’s Bethlehem Steel initiative).
Other artifacts came from members of the Bethlehem Steel community. Forced to stay home, many people dug through their belongings and some turned to the museum to preserve them. Because we’d generated so much visibility around the Bethlehem Steel Legacy project, a great many of these offers came from retirees looking for a permanent home for their memorabilia, photographs, and ephemera from the mill. While our collections and archives staff and volunteers have been extremely busy keeping up with the influx (we are still making our way through the backlog), we also launched an online Community Collection to share personal snapshots and memories on social media.
We quickly learned that processing collections is tough to do remotely. The dedicated team of staff, volunteers, and interns, led by Director of Collections and Exhibitions Jane Woltereck, were some of the only people inside the museum in the summer of 2020. Volunteer Ken Jones has spent many hours reviewing Bethlehem Steel materials in our collections and has been sharing his findings on the “From Point to Point” blog as well as in the “Behind the Scenes with Project Liberty Ship” program.
Exhibitions, inside and out
Research and planning for “Fire & Shadow,” the long-term exhibition about Bethlehem Steel set to open in late 2021, continued during the shutdown. But another exhibition, “Women of Steel,” took an unexpected and fortuitous detour along the way. The exhibition highlights the stories of women who worked at Sparrows Point, where they endured discrimination, sexual harassment, and childcare challenges as they sought camaraderie and a livable wage. The exhibition, which features photographs and quotes from these women in their own words, was originally scheduled to open inside our temporary gallery in fall 2020. We were not open to the general public at that time and, even if we had been, the small gallery would have made social distancing impossible for more than a few visitors at a time.
The team ultimately decided to take the exhibition outdoors along our Key Highway fence. (You can read more about the exhibition process here.) Designer Danielle Nekimken did an amazing job reimagining what she’d already mapped out for the gallery to fit this new outdoor setting. Intern Nae Bailey recorded an audio companion available on SoundCloud. The exhibition is free and accessible 24/7, making it the most widely viewed exhibition we’ve ever mounted. Women of Steel received a 2021 Award of Excellence from the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH). More significantly, however, this outdoor exhibition has introduced the museum to some former steelworkers who we may not have met otherwise. We’ve heard from Women of Steel such as Kathy Garrison and Rita Hamlet who then shared their experiences of the steel industry in blog posts and panel discussions.
The long-term exhibition “Fire & Shadow: The Rise and Fall of Bethlehem Steel,” curated by Deb Weiner and designed by Danielle Nekimken, is currently being installed in our Decker Gallery under the close eye of fabricator Mark Ward of P & M Exhibits. The exhibition relies on individual stories, shared with the museum over the past three years, to stitch together a larger narrative about Bethlehem Steel. Much of what you’ll see on display came directly from the Sparrows Point community. It has been an honor to get to know so many steelworkers and their families over the course of this project, and we’re looking forward to getting to know more once the exhibit opens on September 24. The exhibition is a lasting tribute to the people who worked at the mill, and it will serve as a dramatic and poignant backdrop for Bethlehem Steel programs in the future.
Ultimately, the pandemic called on us to reinvent most aspects of the project but, ultimately, it became stronger, farther-reaching, and more enduring as a result. The best praise we’ve received on this project has been from the daughter of a steelworker who said, “Bless you for this wonderful opportunity to honor those who toiled so hard.”