By the end of September, Maryland Science Center visitors will be able to stop by The Shed for lessons on bicycle repair or a tutorial on soldering or some other hands-on class.
They'll have a chance to sit under a state-of-the-art digital sky in the refurbished Davis Planetarium, where new technology will better integrate video into its shows.
Both are part of a $3.15 million project that will be the most significant renovation of the Inner Harbor landmark since 2004. With attendance hovering around 350,000 but tourism spending slowly increasing, the center is working to evolve into more of a hands-on community hub rather than a passive attraction.
"More and more our science centers are moving away from the notion that they preach science and toward getting people engaged," said Bud Rock, a Baltimore native who serves as the CEO of the D.C.-based Association of Science-Technology Centers. "Part of the goal now is creating innovative individuals and encouraging them."
The Science Center renovation comes on the heels of the opening of the National Aquarium's new $12.5 million centerpiece, the Blacktip Reef shark exhibit.
Tom Noonan, the CEO and president of Visit Baltimore, said the Science Center's refresh coincides with the continued rebound of tourism spending toward pre-recession levels.
"The Science Center is one of the Inner Harbor's anchors, and as with some of our other destinations, we're pleased that they have the ability to deliver new experiences for visitors," Noonan said. "That's going to make it all the more enticing for people to visit, especially those who have been there before and will be eager to see something new."
The new do-it-yourself workshop and planetarium renovation will open Sept. 28, the same day as the previously announced "Mummies of the World" exhibit. That traveling show will require a separate ticket; all of the new exhibits in the renovation will be included in the entry fee, which ranges from $13.95 for children to $16.95 for adults.
The Science Center also plans to add an exhibit about electricity called Power Up! and expand what is known as the Wet Lab into a larger area called Sci-Lab by this winter. The projects won't add space to the building but will reclaim areas that were previously used for static displays or storage.
Work on Power Up and Sci-Lab will begin in September. The Science Center generally closes on weekdays for several weeks during September and, this year, it will be open only on weekends that month so that installation of The Shed and planetarium can be completed.
Adding exhibition area, and therefore maintenance costs, can be risky, said Paul Orselli, a veteran of the industry who runs a consulting firm and blogs about museums and science centers.
"It's obviously a great thing to add features for the public, and the Maryland Science Center has been a great place to go," he said. "But we've seen throughout the industry that there's often spending without understanding how much the investment is going to deliver in return. Some places woefully overestimate the impact of a project. There's got to be some balance there."
The Science Center, a nonprofit that operates on a budget of $10 million per year, will pay for the project using existing funds and through partnerships. Exelon, the Chicago-based parent of Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., is helping with Power Up; BD Diagnotics, a medical supply company with a significant Hunt Valley presence, is collaborating on the Sci-Lab; and the France-Merrick Foundation and state of Maryland are contributing to the planetarium, said Chris Cropper, the center's senior director of marketing.
The Science Center has an economic impact on the Baltimore region of $34 million a year, a study released in January found. It employs about 300 people, tax documents show.
The new exhibits, with the exception of Power Up, are being designed and built by an in-house team, Cropper said. Hands On Inc., a Florida-based company that specializes in the design of experiential displays, will assist with building of the electricity exhibit.
The Shed will be made to look like a garage workshop. Preliminary sketches for the 1,500-square-foot area shows a central work area and several benches where patrons will be able to sit, observe and tinker. There will be hand and power tools available.
"This is sort of playing off the 'maker movement' and this increased desire people have to make things on their own," Cropper said. "That's one way the science center has had to evolve. We're trying to be more of a community hub now."
Work on the planetarium will cost $1.2 million and includes completely gutting the space to add new carpeting and seating. The centerpiece, though, is a new projector and ceiling dome that will create a seamless 360-degree screen capable of showing full video. Previously, the center had been forced to show video in only isolated areas of the screen, rendering it unable to show more recently made and popular shows.
The Sci-Lab will expand to 2,000 square feet, adding classroom space where patrons will engage in studying the chemical composition of materials and the inner workings of the human body, among other things.
Power Up will fill 4,000 square feet with information on "all the things that happen to make a light come on when we flip a switch," Cropper said.
It will offer information on the latest sustainable electricity sources and alternative fuels — causes that have been a focus of science center president and CEO Van R. Reiner — as well as put visitors in the position of city planners responsible for ensuring the entire population has access to power.
"More than ever, people are engaged with technology," Rock said. "More than ever, it's our job to show them how science is playing a role in their lives."
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