Ashley Molese

Does that urban sibling connection mean anything at all?

Few people could name their city's "sister cities." Fewer could explain why the moniker even exists.

The United States began forming sister city partnerships in 1956, in an effort to foster meaningful cultural exchanges. Baltimore's own connections began 40 years ago, when Mayor William Donald Schaefer reached out to other, mostly port cities. Gbarnga, Liberia, signed on first in 1973. Bremerhaven, Germany, is the most recent addition, joining in 2007.

But the aims of these partnerships are often fuzzy. And outcomes "vary considerably." Ashely Molese, a graduate student at the Maryland Institute College of Art, learned that firsthand while working on her senior thesis.

In "Kin+Cargo," Molese contacted all of Baltimore's urban siblings (there are 11 in all, stretching as far as Japan), asking them to return a box with cultural gifts she could display. Then things got tricky.

"The best way to think about it is as a relationship," Molese says. "It takes a lot of work, it's complicated, but it's really amazing when things are going great."

The outside of Molese's senior thesis project by Baltimore's Inner Harbor. (Mark Byrnes)
Objects sent from Kawasaki and Rotterdam. (Mark Byrnes)
A stack of maps and accompanying text show each Sister City and their story.

Few places agreed to help out. Alexandria and Luxor were interested, but couldn't participate because of Egypt's political instability. Piraeus, Greece, declined as well. Only Rotterdam; Kawasaki, Japan; and Xiamen, China; offered anything up. These gifts are on display in a storage container positioned just in front of Baltimore's Inner Harbor. The objects range from stunning vases to Manga posters.

Some cities denied an active relationship with Baltimore at all. And no one could really explain what had happened.

For example, after a year and a half of working on Kin+Cargo, Molese still can't figure out why former sister city Cadiz, Spain, "broke up" with Baltimore. And it turns out that Bremerhaven's current mayor doesn't want Maryland's biggest city as a sibling anymore either. Why? It's unclear. But in Baltimore's eyes, the partnership is still official. "It's like having an ex," says Molese, "you don't have to go into why it ended."

Gbarnga and Genoa seem to have lost interest as well. But unlike Bremerhaven, the relationships hasn't been formally cancelled. 

Despite all the efforts and a fascinating journey, exactly what it means to be a Sister City remains ambiguous. "I've come out of this with even more questions about how these relationships operate," says Molese.

"Kin+Cargo: Exploring Baltimore’s Sister Cities" is located at corner of Pratt and Light streets in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor and runs until Monday, April 21, 2014.

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