Aquarium considers expansion Construction planned to accommodate traveling exhibits

Cost could top $15 million

Officials rejected involvement in Columbus Center

December 17, 1997|By Edward Gunts and Dennis O'Brien | Edward Gunts and Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

The National Aquarium in Baltimore is exploring plans to build a $15 million to $20 million expansion to accommodate the newest trend in aquarium design, aquatic exhibits that can travel from city to city in the same way blockbuster art exhibits move from museum to museum.

Planned for construction on the north end of the 1981 aquarium building on Pier 3, the addition also would contain classrooms to replace two in the Marine Mammal Pavilion on Pier 4 and additional storage space at wharf level for coats and strollers.

In addition, the aquarium wants to build a Children's Discovery Center with a large "touch pool" inside the Marine Mammal Pavilion to replace its popular but cramped Children's Cove exhibit on Pier 3.

Executive Director David Pittenger said the aquarium's expansion plan is preliminary and that there is no construction timetable or funding strategy, although money would most likely come from a combination of public and private sources.

He said the proposed expansion was a key reason that aquarium officials did not think they were in a position to take over the Hall of Exploration exhibit space that was closed Monday inside the Columbus Center on Pier 5.

The abrupt closing of the $10 million attraction came after lower-than-expected attendance there led to a financial crisis at the Columbus Center. It resulted in the layoffs of 34 employees.

Pittenger said his staff looked closely at the idea of taking control of the 46,000-square-foot Hall of Exploration, at the Columbus Center's request but determined that it would not help fulfill the aquarium's strategic plan. He said the aquarium notified the Columbus Center board of its decision last month.

"We did not feel we could take over the Hall of Exploration or run it, either in its current mode or after modifying it," he said. "We looked at the practical realities of operating a 30,000- to 40,000-square-foot exhibit space, and it didn't make sense in terms of our long-range plan."

Pittenger said the aquarium doesn't need another large exhibit space as much as a smaller, specialized space for rotating exhibits, such as "Jellies: Phantoms of the Deep," a hugely successful one that is closing next month.

The aquarium drew 1.632 million visitors in 1995 and 1.636 million in 1996, and it is likely to exceed those numbers for 1997. $H Aquarium officials credit the jellyfish exhibit with helping keep those numbers up by attracting visitors who have been to the aquarium before but want to see the jellyfish.

Experts say the key to successful aquariums is the ability to change exhibits to attract visitors from the aquarium's regional market, those who live within a two-hour drive and might have visited the aquarium previously.

"With traveling exhibits, you're giving local people something new to look at and giving them a reason to come back," said Jane Ballentine, a spokeswoman for the Bethesda-based American Zoo and Aquarium Association.

The idea of creating permanent space for traveling exhibits was borrowed from art museums, which frequently mount blockbuster shows to boost attendance and send them to other cities to defray costs.

When Baltimore's aquarium opened, at a cost of $21 million, it did not have a designated area for rotating exhibits such as the one on jellyfish. There were so few aquariums around the country that there was no such thing as a traveling aquarium exhibit.

But as more cities built aquariums in the 1980s and 1990s -- in part because of the success of Baltimore's -- traveling aquarium shows became more feasible. Today, most aquariums are built with spaces for rotating or temporary exhibits.

The jellyfish exhibit opened in March 1996 inside the old 50-seat Habitat Theater on level three, which didn't get much use. The exhibit has been seen by about 3 million people.

The first traveling exhibit to come to Baltimore's aquarium, it originated at the New England Aquarium in Boston, was modified to fit Baltimore's transformed theater space and will travel to the Tennessee Aquarium after it closes in Baltimore Jan. 4.

The jellyfish exhibit cost $500,000. It will be replaced by another temporary exhibit in mid-March. "Venom: Striking Beauties" will include sea snakes, scorpions, lizards, Gila monsters, tarantulas and other venomous creatures. After that, the aquarium is considering a temporary exhibit on sea horses and sea dragons, probably for early 2000.

Mark Donovan, senior director of exhibits and design at the Baltimore aquarium, has been meeting with colleagues from other U.S. aquariums to set up a consortium that can develop and mount traveling exhibits, sharing the expense of building tanks, erecting displays and creating the computer programs that go with interactive exhibits.

The other institutions include the New England Aquarium, the John G. Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, the New Orleans Aquarium, the Monterey Bay Aquarium and the Tennessee Aquarium.

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