Make way for new kid on block Attraction: The $32 million Port Discovery children's museum, due to open in December, is conceived as a "gateway" to other local institutions.

May 03, 1998|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN STAFF

Almost four years after the Baltimore area's only children's museum closed in Baltimore County, organizers will break ground tomorrow for a new one at Market Place in downtown Baltimore.

While the $32 million attraction known as Port Discovery has received widespread attention because a branch of Walt Disney Co. is designing the exhibits, one of the project's most original ideas did not come from Disney.

What makes Port Discovery different from any other museum in Baltimore -- or the rest of the country, planners say -- is its conception as a "gateway" to other local attractions and institutions, including the Maryland Science Center, the Walters Art Gallery, the Enoch Pratt Free Library and the Maryland Center for Public Broadcasting.

Though the exhibits are designed to be destinations unto themselves, the museum also will refer visitors to other museums and attractions where children and families can learn more about a subject, from ancient Egypt to the newest scientific discoveries.

The Pratt library will operate areas called the "Exploration Center" and "What Next" to suggest other places families might visit after leaving the children's museum, from science museums to nature centers.

This strategy of collaborating with sister institutions also is intended to help knit the museum into the fabric of the city and build a constituency for it at a time when other local museums have struggled for support.

"We're not aware of anything else in the country like this," said Kathy Dwyer Southern, executive director of Port Discovery. "It's very exciting. It has really resonated with the other directors."

About 20 percent of the museum's space, including the areas operated by the Pratt and a block-long glass atrium that will serve as the entrance, will be open every day free of charge, said Janet Marie Smith, an architect who helped plan Oriole Park at Camden Yards and serves as chairwoman of the museum's building committee.

"It's a way of giving people a chance to be part of the museum without spending a dime," Smith said. "It's like Eutaw Street at Oriole Park. There was a conscious desire to have a substantial part of the museum open to anyone and free to all."

The museum's directors will join Gov. Parris N. Glendening, Walt Disney Imagineering Senior Vice President Peter Steinman and others to break ground for the museum during a ceremony at 9: 15 a.m. tomorrow. Dr. Patricia Schmoke is scheduled to represent her husband, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. Due to open by year's end inside the former city fish market at Market Place and Water Street, the 80,000-square-foot project will be the second-largest of more than 300 children's museums in the country, after one in Indianapolis.

For the festivities, museum officials plan to disclose a specific opening date; unveil a theme song and one of six Disney-designed characters created for the museum; and release details about corporate donations that will help fund construction. "This is an exciting moment in time for us," Southern said. "We're really going to do it."

Southern confirmed that the opening will take place in December but declined to disclose the date before tomorrow's ceremony.

She said that December is a good month to open because the event can be seen as a holiday gift to the region, and to those who helped make the museum possible. But it also will give the staff several months for a "shakedown" before the heavy tourist season begins in the summer of 1999.

Since the Cloisters Children's Museum in Brooklandville was closed in September 1994, the Port Discovery staff and board has raised most of the $32 million needed for construction of the building and exhibits.

Directors recently increased their fund-raising goal to $35.5 million so they will have enough funds to cover the costs of operation and begin building an endowment.

Southern said she hopes the groundbreaking will reassure parents and other supporters who have been eager to see the museum take shape. "What we seem to be feeling is pent-up energy," she said. "Parents say, 'When are you opening? My kids are growing up. Hurry up.' We've said all along that we're going to open in 1998, but now I can really deliver on that. That feels very good."

The museum will be open from 8: 30 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily. Its chief audience will be children up to age 12. Directors hope to attract at least 475,000 visitors a year. Ticket prices have not been set, but they are expected to be comparable to prices for other Inner Harbor attractions -- about $7 to $8.50, with reduced rates for school groups and others.

Tomorrow's event is not only ceremonial. Contractors have begun selective demolition of the fish market, last used as a nightclub complex, and the museum has ordered $9 million of exhibits designed by Walt Disney Imagineering.

Those exhibits include:

Miss Perception's Mystery House, which will allow children to help a detective solve the disappearance of a family of mysterious characters.

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