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A fun place to learn by doing Review: Don't expect another Disney theme park, where everything is done for the visitor. Here, kids will enjoy working toward a goal.


Soon after Baltimore's new children's museum opens this week, a little boy and girl will wander through the Adventure Expeditions exhibit, looking for treasures hidden in the tomb of the pharaoh "Neferhotep."

They'll cross the Nile River,

taking care not to fall in the water. They'll sneak along a mysterious maze, past hieroglyphs and mummies. But if they don't follow the clues well enough or think fast enough, they'll find nothing but an empty room -- a sign that grave robbers got there first.

This lack of a payoff may be disconcerting to kids who have spent a half-hour on a treasure hunt. But that's what makes Baltimore's Port Discovery different from theme parks around the country.

"You don't always succeed on the first try," said Beth Benner, the project manager and chief operating officer at Port Discovery. "There's not always one right answer. You get out of life what you put into it. You have to meet challenges to achieve your dreams and aspirations. Those are some of the ideas we want to get across."

Much has been made of the fact that Port Discovery is the first nonprofit children's museum in the country with exhibits designed by Walt Disney Imagineering, the creative group that dreams up rides and adventures for the Walt Disney Co.

The Disney difference is evident -- in the artistry and craftsmanship of the exhibits and in Disney's storytelling ability and crowd-handling prowess. Disney's Imagineers have clearly thought as much about this building as they have with any of their own attractions.

But in many ways, the most impressive part of Port Discovery's design is that Disney defied its own theme-park formulas.

Instead of sending everyone away with the same [happy] ending, this museum has been designed to offer a different experience for every visitor.

In a typical Disney environment, "the onion is peeled for you," Benner said. "Here, you have to peel it for yourself. That's the difference. You write your own script." (Not only that, but Mickey and Minnie are nowhere to be found, even in the gift shop.)

In Miss Perception's Mystery House, kids may figure out what happened to the missing Baffeld family members or they'll be stumped. In KidWorks, the three-story-high play sculpture, they'll climb to the uppermost sphere or get stalled on the way. At the activity cart honoring Dr. Ben Carson, a Hopkins neurosurgeon, they'll perform a successful brain operation (by removing a "lesion" from a balloon) or kill (pop) the patient.

The open-endedness of the experience at Port Discovery is amplified by a full spectrum of exhibits and themes -- from fantasy to reality. That's a byproduct of Disney's philosophy that public attractions should be a smorgasbord -- offering something for every taste.

"We're trying to take stories that may have fantasy aspects and marry them to a real-world situation to provide a learning experience for people," said Martin Sklar, vice chairman and principal creative executive of Walt Disney Imagineering.

"It's like a salad," he said. "Everybody likes a different part of the salad. ... Here, there's something for everyone."

Structural beginnings

The planners at Port Discovery found what was in many ways an ideal building for the Disney smorgasbord -- the 1906 fish market at 35 Market Place.

The city-owned building turned out to be just the right size and shape to contain the array of exhibits and adventures Disney and its collaborators could dream up. It was in a central downtown location, close to the Inner Harbor. And because it had been renovated in the 1980s, at a cost of $25 million, much of the infrastructure was already in place.

Designed by Simonson and Pietsch, the building served as the city's municipal fish market for three-quarters of a century. But during the early 1980s, in need of modern refrigerated distribution space and unhappy with traffic congestion and other logistical issues, local fishmongers moved to Jessup.

On Nov. 23, 1988, the fish market reopened as a retail center anchored by bars and dance clubs with music-related themes. It drew plenty of customers for half a year but closed when members of the development team had a falling out.

Besides Disney Imagineering as the creative force behind the exhibits, the design team for Port Discovery included Amos, Bailey & Lee as the architect; Cho, Wilks & Benn as site architect; and Patrick Sutton Associates as the retail architect. They wisely kept what is good about the fish market, in all its past incarnations, and then modified it for its new use. This respectful approach not only preserved the integrity of the historic building but allowed the museum staff to put money into exhibits rather than the basic shell.

From the fish market days, they preserved the handsome exterior. From the bar mall, they retained the basic "hub and spoke" organization of spaces around a central opening, and the glass atrium that encloses part of Water Street.

Designating Water Street as a weatherproof "free zone" and ticketing area, the designers essentially plugged new exhibits into many of the former nightclub areas. Miss Perception's Mystery House took the place of Eubie's, a '30s-style jazz club. Maryland Public Television's studio replaces the Officer's Club, a USO-type watering hole. Adventure Expeditions fills the space vacated by Rooftops disco, and KidWorks rises in place of Liberty Hall, a 1,200-person concert hall.

The museum is laid out like a shopping mall of sorts, with educational experiences instead of stores. Some "anchor exhibits" are large and complex, like department stores. Others might be considered "boutique" exhibits that fit between the anchors and take less time to experience.

Common to several exhibits are walls that lean and tilt, as if kids had a hand in building them. Disney also specified plenty of low-budget construction materials, such as exposed plywood and corrugated metal. These forms and materials help give Port Discovery the gritty, unpolished look that directors wanted for their museum-with-attitude in the heart of the city.

If there is any drawback to this strategy, it is the somewhat uneven character of the exhibit spaces. The immersive anchor environments are highly effective. Miss P's Mystery House has the same off-kilter sensibility as PeeWee Herman's Playhouse, and Adventure Expeditions transports visitors to another time and place. But the less embellished areas, though more expressive of the original building, seem to suffer by comparison.

For example, the R&D; Dreamlab, where kids can make wind-driven machines and other objects to take home, is important for what it teaches about "real world" activity. But the space itself, with its concrete floor and metal grates and cages, is visually one of the least inviting in the museum.

Preliminary evaluation

In any place that takes as many risks as Port Discovery does, some experiences are likely to be more popular than others.

The two exhibits involving detective work, Miss P's and Adventure Expeditions, appear to be among the most successful environments. One question is whether kids will have the patience to figure out the hidden clues. It's not an easy process.

KidWorks is the ultimate treehouse. The retail space is cheerfully factory-like, with its off-the-wall lights and scaffold-shelving. And the rotating exhibit area, Meyerhoff Gallery, is off to a promising start with the fanciful sculptures of Steve Gerberich, whose whimsical sensibility is just right for a children's museum.

Less sure to please are some of the corridors where exhibits and games have been placed.

When the exhibits are fun and kinetic, like Wonder Widgets or Inspiration Station, they'll draw kids. But when they're relatively subtle or static, like the Kid Kam in the Dream Squad Headquarters, they're likely to be overlooked.

Even the best exhibits have room for improvement. In the dimly lighted Adventure Expeditions, it's hard to see what buttons to push on the X-ray mummy viewer or what other knobs to turn. In Miss P's, the tactile tunnel is a tad too tame.

Finally, despite Disney's storytelling tradition, there doesn't seem to be a permanent place in the museum where kids can sit around the campfire, as it were, and listen to someone tell stories. (Meet and Greet Street would be a good spot for a "town crier" amphitheater).

But part of the wisdom of Disney's smorgasbord approach is that the museum is flexible. Just about every inch of it can be fine-tuned once staffers discover what works and what doesn't.

So in a sense, the fish market is a three-dimensional symbol of the museum's own basic message: Try, try again. The building ultimately didn't work as a fish market. The nightclub conversion didn't last. Now Disney and its collaborators have given it their best shot.

This is not a simple place to build or to describe, and it's subject to second guessing. But if the museum gets kids to see the world in a new light, or understand that they won't always succeed on the first attempt, then it will have fulfilled its mission.

The late Walt Disney once observed that "every child is born blessed with a vivid imagination," but "just as a muscle grows flabby with disuse, so the bright imagination of a child pales if he ceases to exercise it."

Disney felt it was his business to exercise the imaginations of children and adults, through his many entertainment outlets. He would surely have been delighted - and intrigued - by an exercise such as this.

Pub date 12/27/98

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