A fun place to learn by doing Review: Don't expect another Disney theme park, where everything is done for the visitor. Here, kids will enjoy working toward a goal.

December 27, 1998|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

Soon after Baltimore's new children's museum opens this week, a little boy and girl will wander through the Adventure Expeditions exhibit, looking for treasures hidden in the tomb of the pharaoh "Neferhotep."

They'll cross the Nile River,

taking care not to fall in the water. They'll sneak along a mysterious maze, past hieroglyphs and mummies. But if they don't follow the clues well enough or think fast enough, they'll find nothing but an empty room -- a sign that grave robbers got there first.

This lack of a payoff may be disconcerting to kids who have spent a half-hour on a treasure hunt. But that's what makes Baltimore's Port Discovery different from theme parks around the country.

"You don't always succeed on the first try," said Beth Benner, the project manager and chief operating officer at Port Discovery. "There's not always one right answer. You get out of life what you put into it. You have to meet challenges to achieve your dreams and aspirations. Those are some of the ideas we want to get across."

Much has been made of the fact that Port Discovery is the first nonprofit children's museum in the country with exhibits designed by Walt Disney Imagineering, the creative group that dreams up rides and adventures for the Walt Disney Co.

The Disney difference is evident -- in the artistry and craftsmanship of the exhibits and in Disney's storytelling ability and crowd-handling prowess. Disney's Imagineers have clearly thought as much about this building as they have with any of their own attractions.

But in many ways, the most impressive part of Port Discovery's design is that Disney defied its own theme-park formulas.

Instead of sending everyone away with the same [happy] ending, this museum has been designed to offer a different experience for every visitor.

In a typical Disney environment, "the onion is peeled for you," Benner said. "Here, you have to peel it for yourself. That's the difference. You write your own script." (Not only that, but Mickey and Minnie are nowhere to be found, even in the gift shop.)

In Miss Perception's Mystery House, kids may figure out what happened to the missing Baffeld family members or they'll be stumped. In KidWorks, the three-story-high play sculpture, they'll climb to the uppermost sphere or get stalled on the way. At the activity cart honoring Dr. Ben Carson, a Hopkins neurosurgeon, they'll perform a successful brain operation (by removing a "lesion" from a balloon) or kill (pop) the patient.

The open-endedness of the experience at Port Discovery is amplified by a full spectrum of exhibits and themes -- from fantasy to reality. That's a byproduct of Disney's philosophy that public attractions should be a smorgasbord -- offering something for every taste.

"We're trying to take stories that may have fantasy aspects and marry them to a real-world situation to provide a learning experience for people," said Martin Sklar, vice chairman and principal creative executive of Walt Disney Imagineering.

"It's like a salad," he said. "Everybody likes a different part of the salad. ... Here, there's something for everyone."

Structural beginnings

The planners at Port Discovery found what was in many ways an ideal building for the Disney smorgasbord -- the 1906 fish market at 35 Market Place.

The city-owned building turned out to be just the right size and shape to contain the array of exhibits and adventures Disney and its collaborators could dream up. It was in a central downtown location, close to the Inner Harbor. And because it had been renovated in the 1980s, at a cost of $25 million, much of the infrastructure was already in place.

Designed by Simonson and Pietsch, the building served as the city's municipal fish market for three-quarters of a century. But during the early 1980s, in need of modern refrigerated distribution space and unhappy with traffic congestion and other logistical issues, local fishmongers moved to Jessup.

On Nov. 23, 1988, the fish market reopened as a retail center anchored by bars and dance clubs with music-related themes. It drew plenty of customers for half a year but closed when members of the development team had a falling out.

Besides Disney Imagineering as the creative force behind the exhibits, the design team for Port Discovery included Amos, Bailey & Lee as the architect; Cho, Wilks & Benn as site architect; and Patrick Sutton Associates as the retail architect. They wisely kept what is good about the fish market, in all its past incarnations, and then modified it for its new use. This respectful approach not only preserved the integrity of the historic building but allowed the museum staff to put money into exhibits rather than the basic shell.

From the fish market days, they preserved the handsome exterior. From the bar mall, they retained the basic "hub and spoke" organization of spaces around a central opening, and the glass atrium that encloses part of Water Street.

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