Science center set to expand

Dinosaur exhibit to be part of doubled display space

`Sports bar' approach

Construction to cost $20 million

likely to begin this year

February 10, 2002|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

In what should be an almost complete transformation, the 26-year-old Maryland Science Center plans to start construction this year on a $20 million expansion that will double its display space and create the country's first major exhibit on dinosaurs that once roamed the East Coast.

The addition will cap a $37 million campaign to expand the Inner Harbor attraction and the programs it offers, while improving its ability to offer visitors up-to-date information about scientific research and discoveries.

The goal, directors say, is a total makeover of the science center, which opened before the late-1970s revolution in participatory and interactive exhibits transformed science and technology centers from musty museums to lively and ever-changing urban destinations.

The new wing will make the science center the latest of several Inner Harbor attractions to be targeted for an overhaul, along with the National Aquarium, convention center, Top of the World observation deck and Harborplace.

Science center executive director Gregory P. Andorfer envisions creating a multimedia attraction so rich and full of information that it will do for science what the ESPN Zone restaurant does for sports. He talks about making the science center the "sports bar of science, the ESPN Zone of science."

"We celebrate sports so much in our culture," he said. "We want to have a public forum for science that rivals the public forum we have for sports."

Andorfer is even exploring the idea of putting a Jumbotron screen, similar to those inside PSINet Stadium, outside the expanded building to give passers-by a preview of the exhibits inside.

"You can use it for entertainment and sports," he said of the Jumbotron technology. "Why not science?"

Part of `re-renewal'

Baltimore's Design Advisory Panel recently approved conceptual plans that call for the addition to rise on a 1-acre parcel north of the existing building at 601 Light St. - the first major addition to the science center since its IMAX theater opened in 1987. Besides giving the science center a new face to the city, it is expected to help boost annual attendance to 1 million visitors, from the current 600,000 a year.

The expansion will also give out-of-towners another reason to extend their visits, and help Baltimore compete with other cities that are adding attractions, said Carroll Armstrong, president and chief executive officer of the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association.

"We're very pleased to see the science center expanding," Armstrong said. "The more we can say there is for visitors to do here, the better chance we have of keeping them longer."

"It's part of the re-renewal of the Inner Harbor, along with the aquarium expansion and the renovation of Harborplace," said M.J. "Jay" Brodie, president of the Baltimore Development Corp.

"I remember when the science center was a lonely outpost by the south shore in a rather off-putting building that didn't invite folks in," Brodie said. "It's changed a great deal in terms of what a science center should be. ... What you're seeing here is a quantum jump. It's going to change the building in a dramatic way, and it's going to be a terrific plus for their programming."

When complete, the 42,000-square-foot wing will be home for exhibits devoted to the earth sciences, including geology, meteorology, the Chesapeake Bay and paleontology, the study of prehistoric plant and animal life through fossils.

`Better than special effects'

Plans by Design Collective of Baltimore, the architect, indicate that the most prominent feature will be a 53-foot-high "Earth Sciences and Dinosaur Hall" with a large glass window revealing life-sized dinosaur figures inside, including Astrodon johnstoni, Maryland's official state dinosaur.

The new hall will make Baltimore's science center the first in the country to mount a major exhibit on East Coast dinosaurs, and will include features such as a "dino mountain" and a "dino dig" where kids can hunt for fossils. Plans also call for an outdoor "science park" with free exhibits spilling onto the harbor promenade.

Dinosaurs are an ideal subject for an earth sciences exhibit, Andorfer said, because kids are intrigued by them.

"Dinosaurs are one of the early door-openers to science for kids," he said. "They might have their first exposure at 5, when they see special effects. But when they find out they were real, something turns on in their heads. ... They're a bridge between fantasy and reality. They're better than special effects."

Other elements of the expansion include a Temporary Exhibits Gallery for traveling exhibits and an improved loading dock to get them in and out of the center; an area called "Hands on Minds on" for new interactive exhibits; and visitor amenities such as an expanded lobby and a cafe.

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