The National Endowment for the Humanities is giving the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum $500,000 to expand its study of the waterway's work force.

The funding was one of 259 grants announced yesterday by the humanities agency, kicking off the distribution of its fiscal 2000 grant money. The awards totaled $17.2 million, including money for public programs, fellowships for individual scholars and funds to stabilize existing programs.

Officials at the St. Michaels, Md., museum plan to establish an endowment that would support oral history projects on crab pickers and crab house owners and the eating habits of skipjack workers. Other studies underway include those examining the involvement of African Americans in the seafood-packing industry and the transformation of the bay from a workplace to a recreation area.

"We are doing field research on the maritime and work traditions. It is not just research but the translation of that research into permanent programs, and making that available to the public," said Melissa McLoud, the director of the museum's Center for Chesapeake Studies. The endowment will underwrite two scholars and an annual maritime festival at the museum, which must raise $2 million to match the federal funds.

The NEH also gave George Mason University $500,000 for its Center for History and New Media.