Columbus Center: an invitation to the imagination BALTIMORE CITY

September 09, 1993|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Staff Writer

When board members of the Columbus Center for marine research and exploration hired Academy Award-winning designer Bran Ferrento create $10 million worth of exhibits, they had good reason to wonder what the showstopper might be.

Would he propose a pond of sea urchins to help draw the 300,000 to 400,000 visitors expected every year at $5 a head? An array of electron microscopes? A giant double helix?

Yesterday, they found out that Mr. Ferren intends to make the whole $160 million building the showstopper.

A large-scale model shown to board members was packed with objects, obscure and everyday, but all pertaining to the life sciences.

There will be a moss-covered mountain with a waterfall, a fish large enough to walk through, a 19-foot-high ball of string and a cellular membrane that squishes when touched. All symbolize subjects that will be explored in greater depth -- the environment, living things, DNA and cells.

"We don't have a simple subject. This is not an exhibit that can bearranged in a simple linear fashion. We have many subjects," Mr. Ferren, the head of Associates & Ferren of Long Island, N.Y., told board members.

"What we're interested in doing is sparking people's imaginations and letting them understand that they've walked into the scientist's world here. It is all around you.

"That is the point we are going to make -- that this is not just a white male, Harvard- and Yale-dominated industry that isn't accessible to most people. We want to show that this is one field where the pure power of ideas is sufficient to allow you to succeed."

The three-level, 46,000-square-foot exhibition hall is one of the last components to come together for the science and education complex being built on Inner Harbor Piers 5 and 6 and scheduled to open in early 1995.

The building also will house the state's Center of Marine Biotechnology, the Center for Marine Archaeology and a training and development facility.

The exhibits have been conceived as the public face of the project -- the part that will tell people about the research taking place inside, the part that will make children want to grow up to be scientists.

The five exhibit areas on the building's second level are "Life on the Third Planet from the Sun," an exhibit about the environment; "Living Things," about biodiversity; "Through the Looking Glass," about scientific instruments; "Simple Life," about the cell; and "The Secrets of Life," about DNA.

The first level contains an exhibit on marine archaeology, and the third level contains rotating exhibits and a lounge where visitors can meet scientists who work in the building.

(The giant ball of string, the designer explained, depicts the amount of DNA that a human body contains if the DNA strands were enlarged to the diameter of a shoelace.)

Mr. Ferren said he hopes the exhibits make a difference. "Our country is in trouble education-wise, and it is these kinds of projects that are going to . . . make them want to take the next step and learn."

The meeting marked the first time that the board had opened any part of its meetings to the news media, an abrupt change that grew out of Sun reporters' questioning of public officials and board members.

Many of the board members said they were unaware of any policy of excluding the media even though taxpayer money accounts for the bulk of the center's funding. Gov. William Donald Schaefer said Tuesday that he thought the meetings should be open.

Stanley Heuisler, president of Columbus Center Development Inc., said the board decided to allow limited news coverage despite its stance that the nonprofit, private corporation is not bound by Maryland's open meetings law.

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