The cluster of faces inside the Historic Annapolis Museum forms an unlikely group.

Amelia Earhart rubs elbows with Mark Twain. George Washington keeps company with Michelle Obama.

Their glossy, life-size cutouts line the wall along with those of other famous people such as the Marquis de Lafayette, Abraham Lincoln, actress Sarah Jessica Parker and astronaut Charles Bolton.

If you wonder why they are pictured together, you should. It's the question that collections manager Heather Ersts hopes will be asked.

"Every one of these people visited Annapolis and could come back today and recognize Annapolis because of preservation," Ersts said.

This unique welcoming committee greets visitors to the Historic Annapolis Museum, which reopened in November with new exhibits and a fresh invitation to explore this Bayside town.

Visitors can walk in the footsteps of these famous guests. Information cards for each of them note the paths they traveled, including Washington's stops for social and political events and Lincoln's low-key stroll from West Street to the waterfront.

"Ultimately, we want to get people out of the museum to enjoy the town," Ersts said.

Landmarks like the state capitol building, the William Paca House, and Harwood-Hammond House are major attractions, but Annapolis is first and foremost a water town. City Dock is not only a popular scenic stop but critical for understanding the town's history. The waterfront has been its defining feature for more than 300 years.

The entire Annapolis Historic District - surrounding its harbor on the Severn River - is part of the Chesapeake Gateways Network.

"The relationship between Annapolis and the Bay is and has always been symbiotic," Ersts said.

With easy access to the Chesapeake Bay, it first drew 17th century settlers who grew wheat and tobacco on nearby fields and exported their crops to Europe from the local harbor.

In 1694, the state government relocated to Annapolis from southern Maryland. Its central location was more accessible to the growing population of the colony, which traveled and traded primarily by boat. The move triggered a population explosion, as shopkeepers and craftsmen followed political leaders to the new capital city.

An increasing number of enslaved people and servants were enlisted to support the upper class lifestyle as Annapolis became the social center of the Chesapeake, where elite, land-owning families traveled to visit one another, watch horse races and enjoy cultural events.

This was the "Golden Age" of Annapolis, and it thrived until the close of the Revolutionary War.

The Historic Annapolis Museum highlights the Golden Age with a sprawling diorama of the 18th century town.

Nearly every building in the model is related to the water. Middleton's Tavern and wharf provided lodging for travelers and was the operational base for a ferry. Sailmakers rented space in an outbuilding. Warehouses and market space lined the U-shaped harbor. At one end, a small defensive battery of cannons overlooked the water. At the other, a windmill caught breezes from the Bay.

One of the people who found surprising success in this setting was Anne Catharine Green, a printer and publisher featured in one of the museum's new exhibits.

Green moved to Annapolis with her husband, who printed the Maryland Gazette. When he died, Green took over the business. She continued to publish the newspaper and became the official printer for the Maryland government. She was a skilled and formidable businesswoman who not only secured the same rate of pay received by her husband but eventually purchased the home they had leased for decades.

The Annapolis Golden Age ended shortly after the American Revolution, when commerce shifted suddenly and decisively to the deep-water port of Baltimore. Government functions kept the town alive, but the variety of trade and talent moved north. "The craftsmen basically made a mass exodus to Baltimore," Ersts said.

The Bay, however, continued to shape the town. The U.S. Naval Academy opened its doors there in 1845. By the turn of the 20th century, Annapolis became a hub for watermen during the height of the oyster trade.

John Guild, president of the Historic Annapolis Foundation, said that the town's historic charm survives in part from benign neglect.

"The capital kept it an important place, but development didn't happen here the way it did in other places," Guild said. "It fell into a kind of depression."

But activism played a role too, and that's a message the museum makes clear. The preservation effort evolved in response to a building boom in the 1960s and '70s. "There was a lot of development coming in that would have quickly obliterated the downtown landscape," Guild said.

The Historic Annapolis Foundation helped to secure easements on private property and purchased historic buildings that were later turned over to the Maryland Historic Trust. The collective effort has transformed Annapolis into a popular destination for tourists, many of whom still arrive by boat.

The grittier side of Annapolis - the realm of shipyards, wharves and maritime commerce - has given way to a more groomed and artful charm. But the Historic Annapolis Museum offers one gateway to experiencing the town's more deeply layered heritage and its longstanding ties to the Chesapeake Bay.