Even though it's called Port Discovery and is just a block from the Inner Harbor, Baltimore’s children’s museum has never had an exhibit about the Port of Baltimore.
That will change in the next two years if directors succeed in raising enough money to complete a $10.5 million renovation that will bring new features to the multi level attraction at 35 Market Place, including a centerpiece exhibit focusing on the port and the activity it brings to the city.
Planned for the middle of the museum, the as-yet unnamed “Port Exhibit” will include a giant interactive sculpture that will look like the prow of a cargo ship that broke through the museum’s east wall. Children will get a chance to climb aboard the SS Port Discovery, role-play as the ship’s captain and crew, and learn how goods come to Baltimore from around the world by way of the port.
Why an exhibit on the port?
“We’re here. We’re in the Fish Market building. It’s part of the city’s history,” said Bryn Parchman, the museum’s president and CEO. “We’re all about learning and exploration. We thought it would be the perfect metaphor for everything that happens here."
Hundreds of supporters gathered at the museum last week as leaders marked the museum's 20th anniversary by announcing that they’re entering the final stage of a capital campaign, the first since the museum opened in December of 1998, and presenting a preview of the attractions planned to open starting next year. They also held a moment of silence to honor Baltimore County Executive and gubernatorial candidate Kevin Kamenetz, who died suddenly last Thursday and was an unabashed booster of the museum and the city.
Directors said the museum has already secured $7.5 million during the quiet phase of their “Playing Today, Leading Tomorrow” fund drive, including $1 million from the State of Maryland that was allocated by the General Assembly this spring.
They’re now seeking the remaining $3 million needed to begin the first phase of improvements, starting with last week’s fundraising event and the launch of a website that provides information about the campaign.
“Here at Port Discovery, we believe that every child should have access to a special place where they can stretch their imaginations,” Parchman told the crowd. “Help us to do that.”
Although the museum has made improvements and added exhibits over the years, leaders say, this will be its first comprehensive overhaul since the museum opened inside the city’s former Wholesale Fish Market, which dates from 1906, and is set to provide “immersive” attractions designed to promote play-based learning.
Parchman said the exhibit designs are based on the latest findings from research on how kids learn, surveys of what other children’s museums are doing, and focus group sessions held to determine what subjects Port Discovery should concentrate on.
A key goal for distinguishing Port Discovery from other children’s museums, she said, is to create “authentic” exhibits and experiences that tell visitors stories about Baltimore and Maryland. The port exhibit fits that goal, she said, because it will give children a way to learn about the port’s role in the region’s economy, while developing math, science, social, and problem-solving skills.
A second major new attraction will be a four-story “SkyClimber” exhibit that will replace the KidWorks climbing structure currently in the center of the museum, but will be on the perimeter of the central space rather than in the middle of it. Framing the cargo ship replica, it’s designed to let kids go on a journey from under water up into the clouds.
Port Discovery was one of the first children’s museums to have a climbing feature, which has been copied by others around the country. Planners say removing the bulky KidWorks apparatus will help open up internal views of the museum that were blocked before because the older climbing structure was so dense.
Museum leaders are aiming to complete their fund drive in time to start construction of those two exhibits in early 2019 and complete them within several months. They say the museum will remain open during construction, but sections may be off limits for periods of time while work is underway.
More attractions and amenities will be introduced over the next several years, including exhibits on space, art, and nature. Parchman said those subjects were identified through the focus groups and other research as areas worth emphasizing in the renovated museum. On the upper level, she said, will be an exhibit on the history of the Fish Market itself and the role it played in city commerce and as an anchor for Market Place.
The architect for the proposed improvements is Cambridge Seven Associates, lead designer of the 1981 Pier 3 building for the National Aquarium in Baltimore and its Australia-themed addition. Roto Studio of Dublin, Ohio, is the exhibit designer and fabricator.
“We wanted to offer experiences that they couldn’t get anyplace else and that also have a Baltimore connection,” she said. “We felt very strongly about providing a sense of place.”