Baltimore's popular fishbowl National award: Aquarium has worked to sustain powerful draw at the Inner Harbor.

September 22, 1997

WHEN THE NATIONAL AQUARIUM in Baltimore failed to open on schedule 16 years ago, then-mayor William Donald Schaefer waded into its seal pool in a Victorian swimsuit and straw boater as penance for the tardy start. Photos of his "fish schtick" appeared worldwide.

But the attraction has been ahead of the curve ever since, as evidenced by its receipt next week of the National Award for Museum Service from a federal agency that awards grants to museums and libraries. The National Aquarium, along with the Children's Museum of Indianapolis and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, will be honored at a ceremony with First Lady Hillary Clinton.

The National Aquarium has sustained freshness and popularity in spite of being among the first of its kind. Crowned by its signature, triangular, tropical greenhouse, this facility convinced other cities to use aquariums to trigger economic revival.

Many other architecturally playful aquatic showplaces have opened in recent years, from Tampa to Tennessee. But Baltimore's still gets compared favorably in travel and trade publications. Sixteen years is hardly ancient, but stadiums, schools and malls built then are considered outdated and functionally obsolete.

The aquarium is on track to match last year's record of 1.6 million visitors. Its allure remains potent for several reasons.

The building, designed by Cambridge Seven Associates, flat-out works, with its spiraling atrium within a fish tank, and the airy Marine Mammal Pavilion and Atlantic Coral Reef added this decade. Administrators grasp the importance of rotating exhibits, such as the Jellyfish display imported last year and one on venomous creatures coming next spring.

Also, innovative programs for handicapped visitors and partnerships with city schools were noted by the Institute of Museum and Library Services in making its award.

The aquarium's missions are to educate visitors about watery wonders worlds away, and a more parochial one: to anchor several blocks' worth of attractions as Baltimore's tourism district branches out toward a "second renaissance."

Pub Date: 9/22/97

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