A museum for the TV-age kid

December 15, 1998|By Andrew Ratner

ONE WORD could undermine the soon-to-open $35 million children's museum in downtown Baltimore.

It is the term children use as the ultimate condemnation, especially of things adults advise them are worthwhile. They enunciate the word more clearly than any other in the English language, pausing on each syllable, as if to make one word into two.

Boring. Or, as the kids say it, borrrrrr-iiiiiing.

Officials at the Port Discovery museum, located in the old Fishmarket entertainment complex near the Inner Harbor, appear to have done everything possible to avoid earning that label. A sneak preview a couple weeks before the Dec. 29 grand opening revealed an imaginative, well-done project.

A re-creation of an Egyptian tomb, in which kids can X-ray a mummy and pull themselves by rope car across a subterranean river, is as eerie and captivating as something you'd see at Disney World, which is fitting since Disney created it.

In the museum's mock television studio, kids can play a video game. Only in this case, special effects will make them the character inside the game, something they have probably not experienced before. Other exhibits are micro versions of adult attractions around town: a section where kids build robots from junk is reminiscent of the American Visionary Art Museum; a display of toothbrushes and clacking teeth is like something from the National Museum of Dentistry on Greene Street.

Port Discovery's centerpiece, a climbing tower with bridges and tunnels and ladders, is not a new concept, but its complexity and three-story scale is breathtaking -- like Chuck E Cheese on steroids.

Deserved praise was heaped on the work-in-progress last week, from local politicians; from Douglas L. Becker, the boy-wonder entrepreneur of Sylvan Learning Systems who led the museum board; and from Rosie O'Donnell and Montel Williams, the celebrities who headlined a week's worth of opening ceremonies.

But there is still, understandably, queasiness about this project. The Inner Harbor remains a national model of urban revitalization after almost two decades, yet several sizable ventures that sought to capitalize on its allure have failed spectacularly.

The Power Plant currently houses the popular ESPN Zone, the Hard Rock Cafe and a Barnes and Noble bookstore. But its first remake for entertainment in 1985, as a Victorian-themed arcade for kids, was a belly-flop for amusement giant Six Flags.

Two years ago, the City Life Museums moved into a beautifully restored century-old warehouse blocks from the harbor. The attraction closed a year later, perhaps because no audience had been clearly defined and, even if it had been, might not have found the site.

The clamshell-shaped Columbus Center Hall of Exploration was another costly, attractive public venture that closed within months. Its originators apparently overestimated the appeal of taking the family to exhibits on microbiology.

Even the experts in museum design say the secret to success is elusive, but as a father of three, I would guess that Port Discovery has a good chance of being a hit because director Kathy Dwyer Southern's staff cast a wide net in seeking to appeal to various ages.

During a walk-through of Port Discovery last week, I was comforted to see posters of pop music groups, the "Spice Girls" and "Hanson," in one "mystery detective" exhibit; it signaled the designers' understanding that, whatever it takes, they must win over kids on the kids' terms. The museum's colors and sounds will likely appeal to young children, while its intentionally edgy look and funky cartoon-character guides named "Ivan Idea," "Wanda Whye" and "Howie Lovitt" may seem hip enough for the virtual adolescents. In fact, museum visitors feel like they're inside one big cartoon.

Port Discovery's success depends on many factors: hospitality and professionalism of the staff, a lot of promotion and marketing and, of course, value -- as critical a term to adults as the b-word is to children. That doesn't necessarily mean "cheap" since one of the harbor's priciest attractions, the National Aquarium, is its most visited. But if people don't feel they're getting their money's worth, they won't be back.

Keeping kids from saying "been there, done that" was the first challenge. Getting families there is the next one.

Andrew Ratner is a deputy editorial page editor.

Pub Date: 12/15/98

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