Reaching down to younger set

Museum gains by thinking small

Packed: Port Discovery fashions its exhibits to appeal to toddlers as well as big kids.

July 01, 2004|By June Arney | June Arney,SUN STAFF

When Baltimore's Port Discovery opened in 1998, it was a renegade designed to break the children's museum mold by skewing to an older audience, using large-scale, permanent exhibits.

But the $32 million experiment, designed by Disney Imagineering, didn't work on several levels. The 6- to-12-year-old target audience was busy with other activities. The permanent exhibits failed to lure visitors back. And the museum's content proved obscure.

Today, Port Discovery is a new place.

"If you haven't been down here lately, you haven't been down here," said Bryn Parchman, president and chief executive officer. "There's a whole new focus. Great things are happening."

These days, the Market Place museum is packed with children as tourists and camp and day-care groups explore the newly opened "Arthur's World" on tour from Boston, and the various farm-themed exhibits in place for summer.

There is a wall to scratch and sniff where children can identify such farm smells as hay, flowers, sawdust and even manure. Nearby, in a section called "Raising Grandpa's Barn," children can build their own model farmhouses, horse stables and chicken coops. Not far away, they can use an old-fashioned hand pump and work soil with their fingers to irrigate plastic lettuce.

In another area, they can plant play carrots, onions and potatoes. Another activity offers visitors the chance to make their own soap-on-a-rope to take home.

"We're building in activities throughout the museum in space that hasn't been efficiently used before," Parchman said. "We're being much more deliberate about the educational content. When we first opened, it was about self-discovery. Now we're being more direct."

Key to the museum's reinvention is finding ways to combine activities for a wide age range within a single space, so that siblings can be entertained simultaneously. The museum now tries to address children age 2 to 12 throughout its exhibits.

To achieve that meant at every turn the museum had to add activities for children 2 to 5, who had largely been overlooked in its initial format.

"The demand was huge for 2 to 5," Parchman said. "You'll see, we've really opened that up."

Within the next 18 to 24 months, the museum hopes to add an early-childhood exhibit. Among the options being considered are an expansion of the Sensation Station to offer more for infants through age 2 and a water exhibit.

Landing more brand-name traveling exhibits that come with supplemental learning materials is considered another important strategy in luring visitors.

The museum also is adding simple amenities: additional seating for adults, new signs to identify age-appropriate activities and an information station to help visitors as soon as they arrive in the atrium.

Arrangements have even been made with the nearby parking garage to provide $5 parking for museum visitors on weekends.

"We're delivering a better product and one more aligned with who our customers are than we did two years ago, and we're doing it with a budget $2 million less," Parchman said. "The product is better. The experience is better. It's just part of the learning process."

An important piece of that learning process is to bring the museum's finances under control. Having operated at a deficit since it opened, Port Discovery is expected to come within about $100,000 of breaking even for the fiscal year that ended yesterday. Its budget for fiscal 2004 is $3.7 million.

Further reductions in expenses and cost savings from reconfiguring space are expected to allow the museum to come close to breaking even in fiscal 2005 and to achieve breakeven in 2006, Parchman said.

The museum has 4,500 family memberships, exceeding sales goals for the past six months. Museum officials attribute the gain to new packaging and solid program offerings. Although the museum had more memberships when it first opened, the latest numbers are a positive sign after a considerable slide.

Parchman takes pride in reactions like one she received recently from a parent who visited the farm-themed exhibits with her children and left a note saying: "We've been members for four years, and this is the coolest stuff ever."

Further evidence of an uptick is an 18 percent rise in attendance during the first five months of the year over the same period last year. That is 8 percent ahead of projection, Parchman said.

About 240,000 paid visitors came through Port Discovery's doors in 2003, putting the museum's attendance 10th in a field of more than 200 children's museums, she said.

Attendance has never met initial projections, which museum officials say were unrealistic. The number of visitors slumped to about 268,000 in 2001, 35 percent fewer than in 1999, the museum's first full year of operation. Attendance did inch up 1 percent to 271,000 in 2002, at a time when attendance at many high-profile harbor attractions was falling.

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