The tiny Fells Point Maritime Museum opens its doors to the public tomorrow, and officials hope it - and other small attractions like it - will have a large effect on Baltimore tourism.
The $1.5 million museum, eight years in the making, sits amid the boutiques and pubs of Thames Street, directly across a cobblestone street from the pier where hundreds of thousands of people come and go by water taxi each year.
Showcasing the ships, sea captains, merchants and shipbuilders that made Fells Point a bustling 19th-century port, the maritime museum will add another dimension to the city's tourism offerings.
"I think people love to see real things," said Lesley Humphreys, the museum's exhibition coordinator. "I think they love to be connected to real pieces of the past. They know they're in a historic landscape, but they don't know what happened here."
The museum, a collaboration of the Maryland Historical Society and the Society for the Preservation of Federal Hill and Fells Point, was created largely by moving items from a collection previously housed in the basement of a Historical Society building in Mount Vernon, which received few visitors, to the heart of Fells Point.
With 2,600 square feet of exhibition space, the maritime museum is small by museum standards. By comparison, Port Discovery, Baltimore's children's museum, contains 80,000 square feet.
"Small, specialized museums are an interesting trend," said Dennis A. Fiori, director and chief executive officer of the Maryland Historical Society. "You get museum fatigue in bigger museums. It allows someone who wants to hear the story to get it in an easily digested bit. You can take half an hour or three hours. That's the appeal of this."
Admission will be free during opening weekend. Then the museum will be open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday through Monday and will charge $4 for adults and $3 for students and seniors. It will be free to children age 12 and younger.
"In the grand scheme of things, you can look at it as one small attraction, but I think it has greater long-term ramifications," said Dan M. Lincoln, senior vice president of sales and marketing for the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association. "It helps us get our visitors to explore more of Baltimore, experience those neighborhoods, come back more frequently and ultimately see more, spend more and stay longer."
The Maryland Historical Society has used the 1,900-square-foot Civil War Museum, which it also operates, as its model for the new maritime museum.
The Civil War Museum, at President and Fleet streets near the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront Hotel, is run by a single employee and draws about 16,000 visitors a year, which covers the museum's expenses, Fiori said.
Historical Society officials are projecting a similar number of visitors for the maritime museum and expect it, too, will break even through admission fees. Its operating budget is projected at between $50,000 and $55,000.
"We already had a model for this in the Civil War Museum," Fiori said. "We tested it, and it worked."
Another reason Fiori is convinced that the new museum will do well, even though other Baltimore museums have struggled, is that the exhibit cost only $200,000 to install, about the price of one of the Historical Society's regular, six-month exhibitions. Also, the Historical Society has a record of fiscal responsibility, he said.
"Frankly, if this thing were only open a year and closed, we would have gotten more than our money's worth," Fiori said. "But we hope it will be open forever and ever."
In recent years, several museums near the Inner Harbor have floundered or failed. The City Life Museums struggled for years before closing in June 1997, and the Columbus Center's Hall of Exploration had been open for seven months when it closed in December 1997. Port Discovery, the city's highly promoted, Disney-designed children's museum, has failed to meet attendance and profit projections and is shrinking and subleasing some of its space in an attempt to remain viable.
Baltimore has a number of small, specialized museums, including the Babe Ruth Museum, two blocks west of Camden Yards, which attracts 35,000 to 40,000 visitors a year. The National Lacrosse Museum and Hall of Fame, near the Johns Hopkins University, typically has about 5,000 visitors a year.
David McI. Williams, chairman of the Maryland Historical Society's maritime committee and a maritime attorney, said a number of locations were considered for the new museum, including the Columbus Center on the Inner Harbor. The Fells Point location is more authentic, he said.
"It's not Williamsburg," Williams said. "But we're fortunate to be able to have the museum in a place where we can convey that indigenous history, on the cobblestone streets just blocks from where the shipbuilding actually occurred. When you're there, you feel the history of the old buildings. You get a sense of Baltimore's character."
Local tourism officials are optimistic about the latest attraction and its high-traffic location.
"The whole idea of history and heritage right now is important to the country," Lincoln said. "People are looking for the historical, heritage-related experience. I think their timing is perfect."