Columbus hall 'fixable' Encouragement: Experts say the Columbus Center's Hall of Exploration, which is closing tomorrow amid financial difficulties, could still be a success if it is revamped creatively.

December 14, 1997|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN STAFF

With some creative retooling, the Columbus Center's financially troubled Hall of Exploration still could become a successful Inner Harbor attraction, according to a panel of experts who toured the hall last month at the request of The Sun.

Directors of the $147 million research center announced Friday that they are closing the public exhibition hall starting tomorrow because of financial problems. Since opening in May, the $10 million hall has failed to meet attendance projections and is being closed for an indefinite "period of re-evaluation," directors say.

During a three-hour tour, the experts -- architects Peter Chermayeff and Lee Skolnick, and science museum consultant James Backstrom -- noted a variety of physical traits that they said might have kept visitors away, from an entrance partly obstructed by tall marsh grasses to a confusing interior layout.

But the weakest part of the attraction, they agreed, is the absence of living creatures or other exhibits that engage visitors and make them want to come back.

Too much space is devoted to video screens that could be anywhere and well-built but "irrelevant" objects that don't convey the nature of the work under way in the waterfront research center, they said.

The three experts have extensive experience designing or running science-related attractions, but none has been involved with the Columbus Center.

Chermayeff is a founding partner of Cambridge Seven Associates, the Massachusetts-based firm that designed the National Aquarium in Baltimore and many other aquatic museums and attractions.

Skolnick heads Lee H. Skolnick Architecture & Design Partnership of New York, the architects of the Creative Discovery Museum in Chattanooga, Tenn., and consultant for a wide range of clients, including the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian Institution.

Backstrom, former executive director of the Maryland Science Center, is a consultant to museums and science centers around the country.

"If this was trying to be a really good science museum, it should have been much more intensive, with many more options of things to see and do," said Chermayeff. "It's much too thin to be a good science center, per se. There isn't enough that engages you."

The designers relied too heavily on computers and video screens, Skolnick said.

"It's ridiculous today to provide a big, expensive venue like this for video screens and computers, because lots of people can see that at home and school," he said.

"The essence of a museum experience is interaction -- social interaction, interaction with materials, with real things. There isn't enough to touch here. The only things I'm touching are the touch screens of the computers. Where's the connection to reality?"

The exhibits don't have a strong enough link with the scientists who work at Columbus Center, Backstrom said.

"Nowhere can you find out how many scientists are in here, or how they work or what research they're working on," he said. "You could come in here and not even know it's full of scientists."

Volunteers praised

The experts said they liked some aspects of the hall very much, including the volunteers who conducted experiments while visitors watched.

"A lot here is wonderful, potentially," Chermayeff said. "It's complementary to things that are working, like the aquarium. This could be a feast of good stuff."

The Hall of Exploration, beneath a canopy on the west side of the center, was conceived as the public face of the research center on Piers 5 and 6. Its goal was to help explain the research activity under way inside the laboratories on the east side of the complex.

The hall contains half a dozen exhibitions that focus on marine life and research. Large objects include a walk-through rockfish, a giant cell and a horseshoe crab leading to a theater where a film about sharks is shown.

In its first six months, the hall attracted 70,000 visitors, one-fourth of the 280,000 projected. That gap caused a financial crisis for the entire operation. In announcing the closing of the hall, directors indicated that the space might reopen or be put to other uses, depending on what they determine during their evaluation.

Approaching the building from Harborplace, all three visitors expressed concerns about the hall's exterior and said it was hard to tell what was going on inside.

"This tinted glass, I think, is very forbidding-looking," Skolnick said. "If there's great stuff going on inside, you ought to be able to see it, or else what's the glass for?"

The graphics, too, are "severely lacking," Skolnick said. "When you design a building and, after it's done, you have to put arrows all over the place, you know something's wrong. There ought to be some really interpretive element outside to tease you into what this is all about."

A patch of marsh grass near the entrance might be a barrier for those approaching by the footbridge between Piers 4 and 5, Chermayeff said. "It doesn't really serve as an invitation," he said.

No clear path

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