A new look for Baltimore's Inner Harbor this spring

Science Center revival is a $35 million gamble

Bottom line: Officials hope the redone Maryland Science Center will add hundreds of thousands of visitors a year.

March 05, 2004|By June Arney | June Arney,SUN STAFF

The Maryland Science Center, which seems to have been under construction forever, is about to shed its scaffolding and shine.

Museum officials are racing to complete a $35 million update that will double exhibit space and set the stage to make the center an Inner Harbor attraction they hope will rival the appeal of the National Aquarium.

With new exhibits on dinosaurs and the human body, expansive space for traveling exhibits, reception space with spectacular harbor vistas and an array of other updated features, the center's managers expect to boost attendance by hundreds of thousands of visitors a year.

"A lot of museums try to show how smart they are and give you a lot of information," said Gregory P. Andorfer, executive director and chief executive officer for the Science Center. "We're trying to let the kids figure it out for themselves, with their families."

The 40,000-square-foot expansion and the renovations are to open Memorial Day weekend, boasting a first-of-its kind, interactive dinosaur hall where visitors can unearth fossils, assemble bones and walk beneath towering dinosaurs.

"That seems a unique way to present something that's a beloved part of a lot of museums," said Sean Smith, a spokesman for the Association of Science-Technology Centers, a group that has 550 member organizations in 43 countries. "Rather than standing there and reading about it, they're experiencing it."

The major overhaul is a multimillion-dollar gamble that the Science Center has chosen the right mix of permanent and temporary exhibits to re-energize one of the Inner Harbor's earliest attractions, built in 1976 - where attendance has been flat in recent years.

Featuring a three-story, glass-ceiling atrium that will rise from blue terrazzo floors, dotted with mother-of- pearl to represent the constellations of the night sky, Baltimore's expansion is one of several planned or under way across the nation.

Other major projects include those at the Carnegie Science Center in Pittsburgh, the Arizona Science Center in Phoenix and the Louisville Science Center in Louisville, Ky., according to industry experts.

Funding for Baltimore's expansion and renovation included $16 million from the state, $4 million from the city and $1 million from Baltimore County, along with additional money from philanthropic and private capital and from bond proceeds.

The rejuvenated 130,000- square-foot museum also will offer the chance to solidify what Andorfer views as a three-pronged mission for the facility. "I think we have three roles," he said. "We're very focused on being a part of not just tourism, not just education, but also the economic development of the state."

Features such as the wet lab that will enable youngsters to do their own experiments play into the center's role in both education and economic development, Andorfer noted.

"We're focused on a lot of the sciences that are important to Maryland," he said. "How do you get kids turned on to science, so that they'll think about careers in science? The states that lead in science, will lead in technology."

With only 84 days remaining until the opening of a project that began construction in 2002, museum officials are evaluating their pricing. Any new pricing structures or ticket options would take effect when the expanded facility opens, said Christopher Cropper, senior director of marketing at the Science Center.

Projections for attendance at the expanded center are 850,000 visitors a year, up from the current 550,000, with people expected to stay longer and come back more often, Andorfer said.

"It's pretty significant," he said. "We're confident we'll reach those numbers."

He also anticipates attendance by schoolchildren, currently 200,000 a year, will as much as double.

The improved Science Center features a bus turn-around, additional space at the Key Highway entrance for children to line up after getting off buses, and even a lunch room, called the cave, so they will not be forced to eat their bag lunches on the school buses.

Three existing classrooms have been modernized. The TerraLink, BodyLink and SpaceLink exhibits will contain room for classes to congregate and class space will be available in parts of the dinosaur hall.

TerraLink is an area that will present breaking news and scientific discoveries about Earth in a high-tech, high-touch, multidimensional environment. BodyLink is a 2,000-square-foot health update center within the Health and Human Body Exhibit, designed to make medical and health news clear and relevant. The existing SpaceLink uses live links to keep visitors informed about breaking space-related news, including such developments as the current unmanned exploration of Mars.

For the first time, the Science Center will have space dedicated to temporary exhibits - a key factor in keeping museums fresh for visitors.

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