Md. Science Center set to expand Inner Harbor facility planning addition to double exhibit space

October 26, 1998|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

The Maryland Science Center, once a brick bumper on the corner pocket of the Inner Harbor, is attracting big crowds, and officials there are deep into planning for a multimillion-dollar expansion.

The project, dubbed "MSC 21," won't be announced officially for several months. But Gregory Andorfer, the center's executive director, confirmed that "it's going to happen."

"Science and technology literacy is so important that we can't leave it to a 20-year-old science center," he said Friday.

Planners expect the addition will double the 45,000 square feet of available exhibit space. It would be built on optioned land along Light Street west of the existing structure.

Andorfer would not disclose the cost but said it would be in the double-digit millions, paid by a mix of public and private dollars.

The original building -- one of the first attempts to revitalize the city's Inner Harbor -- was built in 1976 at a cost of $7.2 million. It has undergone only two significant upgrades since then.

The harbor side of the building was given a $2.5 million face lift and a more inviting entrance in 1986. A year later, the $5 million IMAX theater was added on the west end of the building.

The IMAX theater's opening immediately doubled attendance.

More recently, Andorfer said, science center admissions have enjoyed big boosts from a "huge" financial commitment to expanded exhibits and programming. Exhibits and films change more frequently. The center has also invested in major traveling exhibits, popular IMAX movies such as "Everest," more aggressive marketing and stronger outreach to schools.

In sharp contrast with the City Life Museums and the Columbus Center's Hall of Exploration, both of which closed this year for want of visitors, "we're bursting at the seams," said science center marketing director Maris St. Cyr.

Paid attendance has jumped 21 percent this year compared with last -- better growth than some of the nation's major museums, Andorfer said.

Earned revenues -- from ticket sales, store sales and school groups -- support 81 percent of the science center's operations, far more than the 20 percent to 50 percent more typical of museums. "We don't need a huge amount of growth in that to sustain this [expansion] effort," Andorfer said.

The current exhibit, "Dinosaurs of Jurassic Park," is drawing big crowds. In its first weekend earlier this month, it doubled the attendance for the same weekend last year.

"Everest" has sold out regularly and has been held over beyond its Oct. 1 close, for weekend shows only. The dramatic 40-minute movie has grossed $50 million around the country, and $1 million of that has been attributed to attendance at the Maryland Science Center.

School programs -- at the center or delivered to schools by the VTC science center's van program -- reached 306,000 children during the 1997-1998 school year.

"That was a record for us and makes us the largest provider of school outreach in the state," he said.

"We're hoping, over the next year or so, to raise all the money, and then take a year and a half to build it all, maybe in phases," Andorfer said of the expansion. "We will probably do some [rehabilitation] of this building in the interim."

Planning for the expansion began a year ago, after it became clear that the 130,000-square-foot building was no longer adequate to house the science center's expanded vision of its mission.

Only a third of the existing floor space is available for exhibits. The rest is occupied by administrative offices, shops and "public space," including the IMAX theater and Davis Planetarium.

"We want to add the space that will allow us to deliver more [exhibits] and more educational programs," Andorfer said. "We want to build three more classrooms. We have a crummy lobby. We don't have any place for people to hang their coats or eat lunch if they don't eat at Friendly's," the in-house restaurant.

"We don't have the proper elevators to take our [exhibits] to the second floor. When we had 'Racecar' in here," he said of the "Science of Speed" exhibit, "we had to hand-carry those cars up the stairs. We had to actually saw the banisters off the stairs and later weld them back on."

"We want to make commitments to the human body, to microbiology and to information sciences," Andorfer said. "These are very important economic drivers in the state of Maryland, and we don't have much about that. We should be getting kids thinking about those sciences, and the careers you can pursue."

Andorfer also plans expanded exhibits devoted to space exploration, with ties to Maryland's Space Telescope Science Institute, the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory and Goddard Space Flight Center.

There will also be new exhibits and programming on Maryland's ancient past, "so we can tell people this place wasn't always the way it is today," Andorfer said.

He envisions "a sort of dinosaur hall, or a science hall unlike anything you've seen before. Not the old dioramas. We don't want cheesy electronic dinosaurs either. It will be focused on showing how we know what we know [about dinosaurs], the process of science."

"Our goal is to focus on things that are important here," he said. "And if we have more exhibit space, a better, more convenient building, we can bring in more kids."

Pub Date: 10/26/98

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