When David M. Pittenger joined the staff of Baltimore's National Aquarium in 1979, his job was to sell the aquarium concept to the public -- quite a trick since the facility wasn't built yet.
The job of selling the aquarium may still present a challenge to Mr. Pittenger, just named as its new director. But at least he won't have to convince anyone of the attraction's worth.
Fourteen years after it opened with its rooftop rain forest, the aquarium remains an aesthetic and cultural signature of Baltimore's waterside renaissance. It is the top tourist draw in Maryland. Even as the Camden Yards baseball stadium has snared some of the limelight in national travel reviews, the aquarium remains a major cog in Maryland's $4.6 billion tourist industry. The ultimate tribute is how often the attraction has been copied by other cities chasing downtown revivals.
That's a tough legacy to uphold both for Mr. Pittenger and the aquarium board's new president, James A. Flick Jr., who runs Dome Corp., which is Johns Hopkins' profit-making arm. The new director and chairman succeed, respectively, Nicholas Brown and Frank A. Gunther Jr., who played key roles in shaping the aquarium.
Their challenge is the same as any teacher's -- to educate and invigorate. The handful of critics who view the place as a floating circus miss the point: The aquarium is an invaluable tool for imbuing children and adults with respect for the environment. In an electronic age of message overload, the sight of fish as big as file cabinets turning pirouettes underwater is an arresting image that transcends the clutter.
We urge the aquarium's new leadership to explore ways to spread their message in places harder to reach. Moving the popular $1 admission "Dollar Day" from summer to the less touristy winter season, and holding a second one next Feb. 26 for Black History Month, are laudable attempts to include city children who otherwise couldn't afford this wonder on the edge of their neighborhoods. Reaching out to city kids is also a cornerstone of the Children's Museum being developed across Pratt Street from the aquarium.
That museum and the new Christopher Columbus Center will draw even more foot traffic to the east side of the Inner Harbor. David Pittenger's trick will be to keep the fish exhibit fresh as it heads into its third decade.