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Planned closing of Cloisters irks some parents


Crouched inside the child-sized "doctor's office" at the

Cloisters Children's Museum yesterday, Pikesville resident Ann Muhvich appeared to be the perfect patient for her daughters Emma, 21 months, and Katie, nearly 5.

But after dressing the budding physicians in miniature doctor's smocks, and scrunching down on the tiny patient's couch for an examination, she turned out to have a complaint for which there is no cure.

Ms. Muhvich was unhappy about the museum's recent decision to close the castle-shaped building permanently on Labor Day so its staff can devote its attention to planning a larger museum near the Inner Harbor by late 1996.

That decision, she said, meant yesterday's visit would be one of her last chances to bring her daughters to the make-believe doctor's office -- and all the other Cloisters exhibits that stretch the imagination.

"I'm very disappointed for two reasons," Ms. Muhvich said. "I think the setting here is very nice. They're not going to build a castle downtown. And for me, it's more convenient. It takes 10 minutes to get here. It's much more of a hassle going downtown."

Ms. Muhvich is one of hundreds of parents who will have one less place to take their children after the Cloisters closes Sept. 4, ending 17 years of operation inside the city-owned property at 10440 Falls Road in Brooklandville, Baltimore County.

The museum board last month announced plans to cease operation on Falls Road so staffers can plan a $19-million museum inside the former Brokerage complex at 34 Market Place.

The museum is closed today. But starting tomorrow, the staff is kicking off its final summer of events, including puppet shows, story-telling and rock painting.

"We wanted to develop a program that the whole family could be involved in," said executive director Beatrice Taylor.

Dr. Taylor and others say the downtown facility will give the museum more room, greater accessibility and a chance to widen its audience.

After Labor Day, the museum will mount a variety of traveling exhibits and collaborate with other institutions to serve its constituency, including a membership of 500 families, and build excitement for the downtown project.

"There may be a void at one location, but there will not be a void of activity," promises Dr. Taylor.

Despite those assurances, Ms. Muhvich's sentiments were echoed by other parents who brought their children to the Cloisters yesterday.

"It's a little bothersome," said Ellis Marsalis, a 29-year-old computer consultant from Northeast Baltimore who was accompanied by his children, Django, 3 1/2 , and Maria, 1 1/2 .

"I can understand the decision to move to the city," he said. But "I don't see why they can't keep this place open until then. We won't have a museum for two years."

Mr. Marsalis said visitors will have to worry more about parking and congestion when the museum moves downtown. On days when the Orioles play at Camden Yards, visitors to the new children's museum will "have to fight the baseball traffic," he said.

At the same time, Mr. Marsalis would like to see Baltimore get a museum with more interactive exhibits. "If they're going to make a better museum, fine," he said.

Board members say they opted to close the Cloisters while planning the downtown museum because they could make better progress if they aren't simultaneously operating the old facility. The Schmoke administration is seeking new tenants for the 64-year-old mansion. The Baltimore Shakespeare Festival will perform on the grounds from July 26 to August 14.

"I think it will be nice downtown because it'll be near the Aquarium and the Science Center," said Margaret Harnock of Hampstead. "It's a good idea."

Cynthia Wayne, a mother of three from Silver Spring, visited the Cloisters for the first time yesterday and was disappointed to hear it is closing in two months.

She said she and her husband wanted to get away from the throngs in the nation's capital and figured the Cloisters wouldn't be overly crowded. They were also intrigued by the castle motif.

"It's too bad they can't keep this as a satellite. It's partly the building that makes it so interesting," Ms. Wayne said.

"This is the kind of place kids beg to go to," agreed Katrina Brandon, a mother of two from Hyattsville. "Kids love it."

One problem with the current location has been its lack of accessibility to people in wheelchairs.

Earlier this year, the Maryland Human Relations Commission charged that the three-level museum, which has no elevator, has failed to make all of its exhibits accessible. A Baltimore County judge set a July 20 preliminary hearing in the case. If the judge finds the commission has grounds for its complaint, a full hearing will be held later in the year.

Museum officials say the closing was prompted by their expansion plans and not the complaint. They say they have tried to bring more of their exhibits from the upper floors down to the first floor so they will be accessible to all visitors during the final summer at the Cloisters.

Marilynn Phillips, a disability rights activist who lodged the initial complaint with the commission about the museum's lack of accessibility, said she never wanted to see the museum close.

"I think it's unfortunate because it deprives everyone," she said. "Our intention was to keep it open. . . . No one with a disability should be denied access."

Ms. Phillips said she is happy that the commission is "doing what it must do to protect the rights of the disabled person.

"What we have here is a situation where people who use the museum are obviously going to express disappointment that it's closing," she said. "But people who are disabled have been refused access since 1977. That's the whole point."

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