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There's lessons for Hagerstown in Civil War medical museum

June 16, 2003

Who'd have thought that an exhibit of something many see as gruesome would become a popular tourist attraction? Not us, but that's what's happened at the National Museum of Civil War Medicine in Frederick. How it came together there is a lesson for Hagerstown, which could use the foot traffic that such a facility generates.

The museum began as the brainchild of Dr. Gordon E. Damman, a Lena, Ill., dentist and collector of Civil War-era surgical instruments.

After unsuccessful negotiations with Washington County, the collection went to Frederick, where it has been drawing tourists to downtown there since 1996.

The museum's site at 48 E. Patrick St. was not a modern, state-of-the-art facility. In 1997, its leaky roof and substandard wiring prompted a second look at Hagerstown.

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But the facility stayed put and in 2000 completed a $3 million renovation project.

The newest exhibit involves Civil War-era embalming, which museum officials say became popular with those who could afford it because of families' desires to have bodies preserved prior to burial.

Proposals for a Civil War-themed museum here have faltered, in part because one organizer's preferred site - the Baldwin House complex - will become the downtown campus of the University System of Maryland.

The second site chosen was on Antietam Street and would have required demolition of half a city block and more than $25 million worth of new construction.

The lesson from Frederick is that it makes sense to do only what you can afford to do at first, then improve your facility and presentation as money becomes available.

All it would take is someone with a bit of imagination and the wisdom to see that it's easier to sell people on the idea of getting on board if you've got something they can already see.

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