Water taxis key to crowd-builder plan

1 bargain fare to tour 15 sites

April 17, 1999|By Mark Ribbing | Mark Ribbing,SUN STAFF

Late this month, Baltimore will begin an ambitious plan to attract more visitors to the waterfront. The plan, called the National Historic Seaport of Baltimore, involves linking sites by water taxi. Visitors will be able to see all of them for a single, discounted rate.

While the undertaking is intended to help define the harbor's future, it could be haunted by a nagging question from Baltimore's recent past: Why do some museums succeed and others fail?

The question is relevant because one linchpin of the Historic Seaport will be a new museum near Fells Point devoted to African-American maritime and shipbuilding history. The Frederick Douglass-Isaac Myers Maritime Park will house exhibits and provide a work space for shipwrights and apprentices to restore traditional ships.

"This is not a museum in the traditional way," said James Piper Bond, president and chief executive officer of the Living Classrooms Foundation, a Baltimore nonprofit organization that is coordinating the water taxi links for the National Historic Seaport project, which is scheduled to begin April 29.

"We call it a `maritime park' on purpose," Bond said. "It will be a working shipyard."

Whatever people choose to call it, the new facility will have to do better than two late and lamented cultural facilities.

The Columbus Center's Hall of Exploration, an Inner Harbor marine science exhibit, closed in 1997 after being open for only seven months.

The City Life Museums shut their doors the same year, 12 years after being established as a combined entity. Both the Hall of Exploration and the City Life Museums drew fewer visitors than expected.

Carroll R. Armstrong, president and chief executive officer of the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association, said the maritime museum might have some attributes that will save it from the fate of the other two museums. Its success is tied to the more established sites that share the aquatic tourist trail, such as Fort McHenry.

"What's stopping it from going the City Life route? Nothing, except that when you look at it, it's part of a larger program," Armstrong said.

Armstrong added that the new museum would appeal to an important and growing African-American tourist market, which he said Baltimore is well-suited to woo. "When you think of Baltimore as a cradle of African-American history, that differentiates us from Philadelphia and differentiates us from anybody else," he said.

There is precedent for setting up a well-attended African-American history museum in Baltimore. The Great Blacks in Wax Museum had 43,000 visitors in 1989, its first year at its current North Avenue location. Last year, the private museum drew more than 200,000 visitors.

The executive director of Great Blacks in Wax, Joanne Martin, said, "A number of museums are finding out that African-American content is very beneficial -- economically beneficial, not just socially beneficial -- to their sites."

However, Martin was quick to add that merely discussing black themes will hardly guarantee a museum's success. She said that, in order to succeed, a museum must appeal to a racially diverse audience and treat history with candor.

"We don't run away from the very sensitive issues of African-American history," she said. "We're not attempting to offend anyone, but we are looking to be true to history."

Pub Date: 4/17/99

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