Can the subject of geography be made fun and exciting enough to draw visitors to a new museum in Baltimore's Inner Harbor?
That's the issue facing a multi-disciplinary team hired to create America's first "Urban Geography" museum high above the city as part of an overhaul of the Top of the World observation lounge.
Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke has approved a proposal by the city's Office of Promotion to raise $3 million to $5 million to revamp the 11,000-square-foot observation lounge and museum on the 27th floor of the World Trade Center at 401 E. Pratt St.
It will be the first overhaul for the city-run attraction, which opened in 1979 and draws 175,000 visitors a year.
The promotion office, which runs the popular lookout point, is seeking to raise funds in time to complete construction by 1997, the 200th anniversary of Baltimore's incorporation.
"We don't know of any other city or place that is doing this kind of project," said Bill Gilmore, director of the Office of Promotion. "It will tell who we are and how we've evolved and where Baltimore will be in the new millennium."
While geography will provide the organizing thread of the exhibits, "it's not the dry geography that we learned in high school," Mr. Gilmore explained. "It pulls in the story of people and land -- past, present and future -- and that makes it more interesting."
Mayor Schmoke said earlier this year he wanted to upgrade the Top of the World space to make it more accessible to disabled visitors, replace outdated exhibits and present a more compelling story about Baltimore. After a preview of the plans this fall, he was enthusiastic.
"It's very exciting. It'll be a great addition to the city," he said.
"It's going to be a world-class attraction," agreed Dale Petroskey, vice president of public affairs for the National Geographic Society in Washington. "It will show, from a wonderful vantage point in Baltimore, how the city grew and why. It's a very creative approach."
Mr. Petroskey said National Geographic has committed to serving as adviser to the project. He believes it could become a model for other cities.
"I can imagine teachers visiting it and saying 'I want one of those in our city,' " he said. "It's geography at its best. It'll be a wonderful teaching tool."
The plan calls for the museum-in-the-sky to continue featuring the panoramic harbor views that have drawn people to the Top of the World for 15 years. But in place of static exhibits on "Founding Fathers" and "Sister Cities," organizers plan to install high-tech exhibits that will help relate the story of Baltimore's growth and development by focusing on its geography -- particularly the sections of Baltimore visitors can see directly out the window.
One of the innovations designed to bring the subject to life is an "information eye-way," a row of video screens placed around the perimeter of the museum just above the windows. There will also be "talking telescopes" that tell people what they're looking at when they point a telescope in a certain direction and, possibly, a "virtual reality" theater that will take visitors on simulated journeys to outer space and under the microscope lens.
According to John Starr, a University of Maryland geography professor and member of the consulting team, the museum has three goals: To inspire children to study geography; to instill in local residents a sense of pride about their hometown, and to thrill tourists.
The difference between geography and urban geography "is that you can celebrate how the city has changed over time," Mr. Gilmore said. "Most people haven't had an opportunity to understand that Baltimore evolved because of its geography. The railroad was based here because of geography. Bethlehem Steel was here because the soil was rich in iron ore that was useful in the industrial age. That's the kind of story we want to tell."
As planned by Design Collective of Baltimore and others, the space will be divided into five chambers, one for each side of the building. Four will be galleries, while the fifth will contain the arrival and departure points and gift shop.
As they move clockwise around the perimeter, visitors will be drawn from exhibit to exhibit by following the information eye-way, whose video screens will feature images of the city and facts about its growth.
The galleries will offer information from four perspectives: Baltimore and its neighborhoods, Baltimore and the nation, Baltimore and the world, and Baltimore and the universe.
The underlying message is that Baltimore's outreach is far beyond its geographical boundaries. By the time they exit, planners say, visitors should have a better sense that Baltimore and Maryland are significant players on the world stage -- and becoming more so.
Visitors also may be able to take a simulated flight through space, whizzing past satellites developed by Maryland organizations. They would then travel down the barrel of a high-powered microscope to journey through the universe of a cell -- if the appropriate technology is developed and funded for such a trip.
Mr. Gilmore and John Kastner, marketing director for the Office of Promotion, said they're trying to raise funds only through private donations and corporate sponsorships rather than public expenditures.
The revamped museum will take 40 to 60 minutes to tour. Mr. Gilmore said he hopes to keep the cost of admission as low as possible. At present, it's $3 for adults and $2 for children under 12 and senior citizens. Maryland school groups are admitted free of charge.
None of the changes will take away from the picturesque views, added architect Richard Burns. "If people just want to come up and look out the window, they can easily do that, too."
Others on the design team are Active 8, high-tech exhibits; David Ashton and Co., graphics; and Lighting Design Collaborative, lighting.