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Trying to install an off-kilter attitude


You have to cross the Nile River at dusk to unravel the mysteries of ancient Egypt.

On the other side, hieroglyphics guide you through a shadowy maze filled with hissing cobras and other slithery creatures.

If you can figure out the circuitous route, then decipher the secret code of the jackal-god Anubis, a stone door swings open and leads you to your final destination: the hidden burial chamber of a pharaoh and his family.

"It's a walk-in sarcophagus," a man at the entrance explains. "We call it 'Mummy Dearest.'"

The construction worker's wisecrack breaks the spell. You're not in Egypt. You're in Baltimore, and this elaborate burial chamber is actually taking shape as a key feature of Port Discovery, the new children's museum.

The Egyptian area, called Adventure Expeditions, challenges kids to find the pharoah's body before grave robbers get to it. It's one of many Disney-designed exhibits that construction crews are rushing to complete in time for this week's preview events. The grand opening is Dec. 29.

Across the way, workers are finishing an oddball mystery house with skewed walls and a giant bathtub containing a drain large enough for kids to crawl into. The drain is a "tactile tunnel" that leads to a kitchen sink. Along the way kids come across all kinds of gunk and junk one might find inside a drain pipe - from hair balls to squishy materials of unknown origin.

Just inside the museum entrance is Meet and Greet Street, an urban cityscape where kids can learn about modern-day Maryland heroes, such as Johns Hopkins neurosurgeon Ben Carson and Olympic swimmer Beth Botsford. The heroes are showcased inside a row of houses whose walls tilt this way and that.

This is one of several places where structures are off-kilter - a challenge for the building crews that have been racing to get the museum open on time. It's all part of the whimsical, slightly irreverent "museum with attitude" that planners have tried to create at Port Discovery.

"Usually, if carpenters build something that's crooked, the client wants them to do it over again," said Beth Benner, project manager and chief operating officer of Port Discovery. "I've had workers tell me, 'We'd normally get fired for this.' But here, it's encouraged."

The crooked angles and rough edges are designed to suggest that kids had a hand in building the exhibits, Benner said. "It's to empower kids. We want a kid to say, 'Hey, I can go in my back yard and build something like that.'"

The museum hired a Disney subsidiary, Walt Disney Imagineering, to design and build exhibits. It's one of the rare occasions in Disney's 45-year history that the company has agreed to work on a project it will not own - and the first time Disney has agreed to work on a children's museum.

Disney's presence helped attract some of the top names in exhibit design and fabrication. Of the 500 or so subcontractors involved, some are from local companies and others are specialists brought in from around the country - PlayWorks from Franklin, Tenn., Lightswitch from Chicago and Art Guild from West Deptford, N.J.

Wherever they are from, they must think, well, off-kilter. In the three-story KidWorks climbing tower, electricians ran the wires like spaghetti, the squigglier the better.

In the mystery house, the workers left a giant lump in the wallpaper. It's one of the clues kids can explore to find the house's missing Baffle family. The lump looks suspiciously like a dead body, but the workers aren't telling what it is. (Nor will they divulge what's really in that bathtub drain. Or how they get a cat to screech every time someone approaches a certain door. Disney keeps that sort of information under wraps to maintain the illusions.)

Museum designers are trying to offer "immersive" experiences that tickle the senses and spark the imagination. This vivid, intensive theming of exhibits is what separates Baltimore's children's museum from others around the country.

"Rather than knowing you're always in a museum, you go from environment to environment," Benner said.

At Inspiration Station, kids will pass by a giant vacuum cleaner that's designed to suck out all their doubts and worries. Then they're shot with a blast of air meant to fill them with inspiration.

An exhibit called Wonder Widgets is a takeoff on the old "I Love Lucy" episode in which Lucy has to wrap chocolates as they come down the candy factory conveyor belt. In this case, kids have to assemble "widgets," and if they do a good job, the conveyor belt goes faster, so it's practically impossible to keep up.

"They're going out on the edge a little bit by being so heavily themed," said John Featherstone, a principal at Lightswitch. "But I think it's a great combination of museum and immersion experiences. ... This kind of environment is the way the museum market is heading."

Contractors say it's harder to build the way they're building at Port Discovery, because the construction process is time-consuming and the craftspeople have to be in the proper mind set.

"This isn't a normal open-the-drawings-up-and-put-it-in type of job," said David Banach, general foreman of Enterprise Electric Co. of Baltimore. "It involved working closely with the customer and making a lot of changes."

With its tilting walls and slanted furniture, Miss Perception's Mystery House was especially tricky, said Douglas Zegel, president of Art Guild, the New Jersey exhibit designers. "Everyone wants to build it perfectly, and it took an extra effort to make it imperfect. As Dolly Parton says: 'It costs a lot of money to look this cheap.'"

Despite the time pressure, the builders are having fun putting the museum together.

"You guys are lucky to have it in your town," said Featherstone, who lives in Chicago and plans to bring his family to see the museum after it opens. "I can't wait to get my 6-year-old daughter in here. She's going to go nuts."

Pub Date: 12/06/98

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