Baltimore’s Peale Centre in Second Life

Virtual Peale, Second Life

Saturday, August 15th 2020 marks the start of a new public experience in Second Life when the Virtual Peale formally opens its doors to visitors from both within and beyond the platform.

Virtual Peale is a collaborative project involving The Peale Centre for Baltimore History and Architecture and Linden Lab, and with the support of Virtual Ability Inc. It encompasses an in-world reproduction of the historic Peale Centre building, which will be used to host a range of virtual exhibitions and events that both mark the original building’s foremost roles as both a museum, and its modern day role as a cultural heritage centre for the City of Baltimore.

Some of the images of the Peale building over the decades, located in the Virtual Peale entrance hall

As one of the most historic buildings in Baltimore, the Peale Centre building is a US National Historic Landmark, appearing in the US National Register of Historic Places. It first opened its doors to the public on August 15th, 1814 as the first purpose-built museum building in the United States. It was designed by Robert Cary Long, Baltimore’s first native-born (and self-trained) architect, and  commissioned by Rembrandt Peale, whose father, the artist, inventor, naturalist and politician Charles Willson Peale (1741–1827), had co-founded the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and Philadelphia Museum in 1805.

The Peale building functioned as a museum from 1814 through to 1829, becoming famous for its exhibitions of natural history, militaria and selections of art by some of history’s most renowned painters from around the world, together with works by members of the extended Peale family, most of whom – including Rembrandt Peale – were accomplished artists in their own right. In 1816 the museum made history by becoming the first gas-lit building in Baltimore, Rembrandt following the example of his brother Rubens, Rubens, who had installed similar lighting in the family’s Philadelphia Museum. Doing so allowed Rembrandt to gain the backing needed to establish the Gas Light Company of Baltimore, the first commercial gas light company in America, and this in turn resulted in Baltimore becoming the first US city to be illuminated by gas street lights.

One of the ground floor rooms of Virtual Peale with (l) a drawing of Rembrandt and Rubens Peale demonstrating gas-powered lighting, and (r) The Artist in His Museum, a self-portrait by C.W. Peale painted in 1822, the original now hanging in the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts

In 1829/30, the museum relocated, and the Peale Building became Baltimore’s City Hall through until 1877. In 1878 it became the location of the first public high school for African Americans in the city, prior to passing into commercial use from 1879 through until 1929. Following an extensive rebuilding programme, in 1930 the building returned to its roots as Municipal Museum of the City of Baltimore, although it was referred to simply as “The Peale Museum”. It continued in this role through until 1997, gaining considerable recognition over the years for its collection of Peale portraits, its annual art and photography events and for several exhibitions combining the history and architecture of Baltimore, such as the nationally acclaimed Rowhouse: a Baltimore Style of Living, a celebration of Baltimore’s distinctive row houses.

Today, the building forms the nucleus of The Peale Centre for Baltimore History and Architecture, and is in the midst of renovations to restore it to its former glory. Once completed, this work will allow it to function as a historic heritage centre / place of learning through the 21st century, including enabling local cultural communities to share their authentic stories of the city both through live performance and on-line.

Another of the ground floor exhibition spaces within Virtual Peale. Note that many of the items throughout the museum are interactive – left-click them for information to be displayed in local chat

To mark the 206th anniversary of the building first opening to the public, the Virtual Peale will similarly be opening its doors within Second Life on what has become known as Founder’s Day for the building. Through it, visitors from across Second Life and beyond will be able to learn about it and the Peale family and participate in special virtual exhibitions.

Developed from a 3D model of the Peale Museum building originally created by the Imaging Research Centre at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) for the university’s Visualising Early Baltimore project, the Virtual Peale reproduces the original’s historic frontage and includes a virtual take on the Peale gardens. Inside, the building presents aspects of the physical Peale Centre’s interior, with exhibition spaces that help tell the building’s story and the work of the Peale family as artists, curators, inventors, and naturalists. The one departure from the original floor plans is the long entrance hall leading to the main lobby area, which is used to present photographs of the original Peale building throughout its history.

The Virtual Peale Garden

For the first exhibition, Virtual Peale presents Redefine/ABLE: Challenging Accessibility, marking the 30th anniversary of The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

Originally developed by students from the University of Maryland (UMD), to be presented as a cross-platform, multi-site exhibit utilising both the UMD’s College Park campus and the Carroll Mansion Museum in Baltimore, thanks to the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, Redefine/ABLE has been re-imagined as an immersive Second Life experience. It is designed to address diversity, inclusion and ableism, and seeks to engage audiences about the successes and challenges of persons with disabilities in Maryland and beyond.

Developed with a grant from Maryland Humanities, and with the support of the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Maryland Historic Trust, and with the active support and advice of Virtual Ability, Inc., Redefine/ABLE can be found in the Virtual Peale’s second floor Picture Gallery – actually a teleport that leads to a separate platform than is automatically activated on climbing the stairs and “entering” the exhibition space.

The Redefine/ABLE exhibition in Virtual Peale, featuring interactive panels

By using the space in this way, with teleports connecting exhibits with the main building, it will be possible to expand Virtual Peale’s internal layout to offer additional gallery spaces. Some of these will reflect and expand on exhibitions that can also be found in the physical world, whilst others will be inspired by the Peale’s programming and partners, allowing the Peale in Second Life to become a creative hybrid of physical and imaginary museum spaces.

It has been thrilling to develop this new experience of the country’s oldest museum building in Second Life. Thanks to the amazing work of Linden Lab and Virtual Ability, Inc., we are now able to welcome a huge new community to the Peale, and share its rich history as well as the authentic stories and creativity of Baltimore with the largest and oldest virtual world on the Internet.

– Dr. Nancy Proctor, Executive Director of the Peale Centre

In addition to providing input and advice on hosting the Redefine/ABLE exhibition, Virtual Ability has also played a key role in developing Virtual Peale: most of the interior detailing has been put together by Eme Capalini of Virtual Ability, and she also spent time developing a “Mastodon Hunt” to help celebrate the ties the museum and C.W. Peale have to the unearthing of the first mastodon skeleton to be found in the United States that went on to become the focal point of the museum’s opening exhibition and the subject of C.W. Peale’s 1086 painting, Exhuming the First American Mastodon (a reproduction of which can also be found inside the Virtual Peale building).  Further, Virtual Ability are assisting The Peale Centre in helping members of the public sign-up and join Second Life for this opening event.

The Redefine/ABLE exhibition in Virtual Peale

Also included in the Virtual Peale build is the StoryTelling Studio. As noted above, a major part of The Peale Centre for Baltimore History and Architecture is to keep alive authentic stories about the City of Baltimore through live performance and on-line events, and the Storytelling Studio is a part of this, together with a partnership the centre has with Libraries without Borders. It is also something the Peale Centre wants to extend into Second Life.

So, if you are a resident of Baltimore and / or have a story connected to Baltimore and its history you’d like to share, the Peale Centre would like to hear from you. contact them by dropping your details and story via note card into the mail box inside Virtual Peale, or if you prefer, you can use the Peale Centre’s Add A Story page, or reach out of project members through the Peale’s in-world group or e-mail them at

You can learn more about Virtual Peale and the work of the Peale Centre via the Lab Gab video below.

Virtual Peale Opening Event

As a part of the opening, Virtual Peale will host three events on Saturday, August 15th, 2020 (all times SLT):

  • 08:00: a tour of Virtual Peale, hosted by David London, the Peale’s Chief Experience Officer.
  • 09:00: a panel discussion, Accessibility and Inclusion in Physical and Virtual Spaces, featuring George Ciscle, Curator-in-Residence Emeritus at Maryland Institute College of Art; Alice Kreuger, founder of Virtual Ability, Inc.; Monica Rhodes, Director of Resource Management, the National Park Foundation; and Dr. Jeremy Wells, Associate Professor in the Historic Preservation program in the School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation at the University of Maryland.
  • 10:30 (approx): a further tour of the Virtual Peale and open Q&A session with representatives from The Peale Centre and Virtual Ability.

The opening will also be live streamed on You Tube.

SLurl and Links

Note the SLurl below will only be available when Virtual Peale opens on Saturday, August 15th, 2020.