Port Discovery must change, the experts say

Opportunity: That is what is created by the move to the Columbus Center, industry experts say.

July 27, 2002|By Bill Atkinson and June Arney | Bill Atkinson and June Arney,SUN STAFF

Port Discovery, the financially troubled children's museum, will need more than a move to revive its operations, industry experts said yesterday.

The museum has to reinvent itself and frequently change its mix of exhibitions to keep it fresh and customers returning, they say.

The move should be part of a "strategic plan to improve what you are doing," said Lynn Robertson, executive director of the McKissick Museum in Columbia, S.C., and director of the graduate program in museum management at the University of South Carolina. "That it is not just a move for move's sake, that there are other things going on."

Port Discovery plans to relocate from its large downtown location on Market Place, where it has struggled since it opened in December 1998 at a cost of $32 million. The museum expects to open next year in a smaller exhibit hall at the Columbus Center on Pier 5 in the Inner Harbor, which is adjacent to the National Aquarium, a blockbuster attraction.

Douglas L. Becker, chairman and chief executive of Sylvan Learning Systems Inc. and chairman of the board of Port Discovery, expects about 70 percent of the museum's exhibits to move to the new location. Changes will be made to freshen its appeal, he said.

"This is a chance for us to take only the best features of Port Discovery and, adding new attractions, combine them with a prime location next to the aquarium in order to serve more visitors and ensure our financial future," Becker said.

The new site is widely supported because it offers the museum greater visibility in a high-traffic area. But experts say Port Discovery could miss its chance to capitalize on that if it is perceived as being largely unchanged.

"Whenever you make a change like that, it's more than a change in location, it's an evaluation and a progression of the museum's mission," said Andree D. Peek, chief executive of Sci-Port Discovery Center, an interactive science center in Shreveport, La. "It's a great opportunity to really advance the museum to meet the needs not currently being met and to complement the programs currently around the harbor."

Some think Port Discovery is suffering because people have little reason to return for second and third visits. Exhibits become stale; there is little space for popular national exhibits; and at times equipment is broken, they say.

Port Discovery's attendance slumped to about 268,000 last year, 35 percent fewer than in 1999, its first full year of operation.Those figures pale compared with the Parris N. Glendening administration's 1997 projections of 750,000 annual visitors ,1,000 jobs and $45 million in economic impact. That optimistic forecast was quickly reduced.

Some children's museums are thriving.

The Children's Museum of Richmond moved to a larger building in April 2000, increasing its size fivefold, said Nan Miller, president and chief executive of the museum.

Attendance has grown from about 50,000 a year in its old building to about 200,000. Miller thinks it can boost attendance to about the 250,000 range. That would nearly match Port Discovery's attendance last year, though Richmond has less than one-third of Baltimore's population. Miller said that when the museum moved, it dropped nearly all of its exhibits and brought in new ones.

"With a new location and a bigger building, we had the opportunity to come out of the box with everything new and fresh," Miller said. "Our message was `new museum,' and the new museum needed to be really new."

Richmond's children's museum has an art studio where children can work with clay and paint, and weave; a performing arts center where they can act and dress up; and a physical sciences area where they can learn how things work. Miller said she is always hunting for new exhibits.

Becker said Port Discovery is taking steps to increase its drawing power. In addition to dedicating more space to exhibits for younger children, he said, Port Discovery will increase activities where children can make things to take home. Becker is also optimistic that the HiFlyer balloon can be relocated outside the new space and said the museum will be able to add outside exhibits, perhaps including a wooden fort.

"We will have a chance to address just about every consumer concern," Becker said. "That's how I went from thinking this [the move] was the craziest idea I'd heard to being its chief advocate."

Robertson, the professor, said museums sometimes struggle because they ignore basic business practices. They rely on consultants who feed them unrealistic projections, don't collect statistics on visitors and lack long-term strategic planning.

Port Discovery took a step to shore up its operations when it hired Alan M. Leberknight, a former banker and dean of Towson University's business school, as president and chief executive, nearly a year ago.

"People are not interested in supporting warm and fuzzy anymore," Robertson said. "They want to know what products we deliver and how good we are at delivering those products."

Robertson said Baltimore might rally around Port Discovery if it believes the move is a "last-ditch effort" to save it. "But a lot of times there is the feeling that smaller is not as good, and they are on the way out because they couldn't make the larger space grow," she said.

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