An 'aquatorium?' Here?

April 02, 1994|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun Staff Writer

A $50 million "aquatorium" -- the world's first museum focusing on "the history and future of water and people" -- may be Baltimore's next major downtown attraction.

The Abell Foundation recently agreed to finance a $60,000 study to determine whether the ecologically oriented project should be built on Baltimore's waterfront and where the best site would be.

The idea was proposed by James Wines, a designer and ecologist with a national reputation for promoting environmental awareness.

He sees the aquatorium as a new kind of museum dedicated to the "history, science, culture and preservation of water."

He said it would differ from aquariums and other water-related attractions in its focus on the connection between water and people. He calls it the ideal "science-based destination attraction" for ecology-oriented families in the 1990s.

"Water is the earth's most precious resource, and there is a lot of concern about the water supply," Mr. Wines said. "But there doesn't seem to be any place to go to study water and commerce, water and ecology. This would be the first."

Robert C. Embry Jr., president of the Abell Foundation, said his organization financed the study to help city officials determine whether the aquatorium would be a good addition to the Inner Harbor.

No one knows yet whether it would be feasible, he said, but "we wouldn't have funded it if we didn't think it was worth pursuing."

Honora Freeman, president of the Baltimore Development Corp., said her agency has been briefed on the aquatorium proposal and is awaiting the results of the Abell study.

She said the city is always open to ideas for new attractions to draw families and to get them to spend more time in town. But she said that planners also want to know whether the project would justify the expenditure.

Unlike an aquarium, in which living creatures are put on display, the aquatorium would be more about "how humanity is shaped and has been shaped and will continue to be shaped by water," Mr. Wines said.

"By means of sight, sound and touch, it would tell the story of water and people. . . . It could feature everything from the history of bathtubs and bathing, to the mythological stories about water, to religious rituals involving water. It would be an exploratorium for water."

The aquatorium's key features would be interactive exhibits, including fountains, gardens, video monitors, hands-on displays and high-technology communication systems designed to appeal to a wide audience.

For example, Mr. Wines said, one exhibit might focus on Roman aqueducts, while another might focus on water as a recurring theme in art. There would be exhibits on water and culture, water and habitat, water's relationship to transportation and commerce, water and science, water and technology, and water and urbanism.

Additional areas would focus on "the wonder of water," "the pleasure of water" and "the power of water," he said.

In general, Mr. Wines said, the exhibits would be developed with two basic purposes: to remind visitors of the value of water in every aspect of life and "to show why the global community must work together to help safeguard its quantity and quality."

The aquatorium would also have a study center and library for researchers, a swimming pool and health center, shops and a restaurant.

Mr. Wines said the aquatorium would take about half a day to see, with admission about the same price as the National Aquarium's.

Baltimore is an ideal location, Mr. Wines said, because of its refurbished waterfront, its proximity to the Chesapeake Bay and its existing water-related attractions, from the National Aquarium to the Public Works Museum to the soon-to-open Columbus Center.

Baltimore is also significant as the home of the late Abel Wolman, the Johns Hopkins University professor who became known as "the father of modern plumbing" because of his expertise in sanitary engineering and public health.

Mr. Wolman was such a pioneer in his field that Mr. Wines said he is considering naming his project the Abel Wolman National Aquatorium.

Mr. Wines' New York design firm, SITE Inc., is working with Anshen + Allen, a Baltimore architectural firm, to complete the feasibility study.

He said one possible site is part of the Allied Signal property between the Inner Harbor and Fells Point, but that other waterfront sites are under consideration. The $50 million cost estimate is still a rough figure, and the actual cost would depend on the site selected, he added.

Money for the project would come from a combination of public and private funds, just as the city and state drew on various sources to build the $164 million Columbus Center on Piers 5 and 6.

Mr. Wines has begun meeting with environmental and educational groups, including the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the National Geographic Society, to gauge their interest. He also will discuss the project in depth during a public presentation at the Baltimore Museum of Art Tuesday at 7:30 p.m.

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