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Science center set to expand

THE BALTIMORE SUN

In what should be an almost complete transformation, the 26-year-old Maryland Science Center plans to start construction this year on a $20 million expansion that will double its display space and create the country's first major exhibit on dinosaurs that once roamed the East Coast.

The addition will cap a $37 million campaign to expand the Inner Harbor attraction and the programs it offers, while improving its ability to offer visitors up-to-date information about scientific research and discoveries.

The goal, directors say, is a total makeover of the science center, which opened before the late-1970s revolution in participatory and interactive exhibits transformed science and technology centers from musty museums to lively and ever-changing urban destinations.

The new wing will make the science center the latest of several Inner Harbor attractions to be targeted for an overhaul, along with the National Aquarium, convention center, Top of the World observation deck and Harborplace.

Science center executive director Gregory P. Andorfer envisions creating a multimedia attraction so rich and full of information that it will do for science what the ESPN Zone restaurant does for sports. He talks about making the science center the "sports bar of science, the ESPN Zone of science."

"We celebrate sports so much in our culture," he said. "We want to have a public forum for science that rivals the public forum we have for sports."

Andorfer is even exploring the idea of putting a Jumbotron screen, similar to those inside PSINet Stadium, outside the expanded building to give passers-by a preview of the exhibits inside.

"You can use it for entertainment and sports," he said of the Jumbotron technology. "Why not science?"

Part of 're-renewal'

Baltimore's Design Advisory Panel recently approved conceptual plans that call for the addition to rise on a 1-acre parcel north of the existing building at 601 Light St. - the first major addition to the science center since its IMAX theater opened in 1987. Besides giving the science center a new face to the city, it is expected to help boost annual attendance to 1 million visitors, from the current 600,000 a year.

The expansion will also give out-of-towners another reason to extend their visits, and help Baltimore compete with other cities that are adding attractions, said Carroll Armstrong, president and chief executive officer of the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association.

"We're very pleased to see the science center expanding," Armstrong said. "The more we can say there is for visitors to do here, the better chance we have of keeping them longer."

"It's part of the re-renewal of the Inner Harbor, along with the aquarium expansion and the renovation of Harborplace," said M.J. "Jay" Brodie, president of the Baltimore Development Corp.

"I remember when the science center was a lonely outpost by the south shore in a rather off-putting building that didn't invite folks in," Brodie said. "It's changed a great deal in terms of what a science center should be. ... What you're seeing here is a quantum jump. It's going to change the building in a dramatic way, and it's going to be a terrific plus for their programming."

When complete, the 42,000-square-foot wing will be home for exhibits devoted to the earth sciences, including geology, meteorology, the Chesapeake Bay and paleontology, the study of prehistoric plant and animal life through fossils.

'Better than special effects'

Plans by Design Collective of Baltimore, the architect, indicate that the most prominent feature will be a 53-foot-high "Earth Sciences and Dinosaur Hall" with a large glass window revealing life-sized dinosaur figures inside, including Astrodon johnstoni, Maryland's official state dinosaur.

The new hall will make Baltimore's science center the first in the country to mount a major exhibit on East Coast dinosaurs, and will include features such as a "dino mountain" and a "dino dig" where kids can hunt for fossils. Plans also call for an outdoor "science park" with free exhibits spilling onto the harbor promenade.

Dinosaurs are an ideal subject for an earth sciences exhibit, Andorfer said, because kids are intrigued by them.

"Dinosaurs are one of the early door-openers to science for kids," he said. "They might have their first exposure at 5, when they see special effects. But when they find out they were real, something turns on in their heads. ... They're a bridge between fantasy and reality. They're better than special effects."

Other elements of the expansion include a Temporary Exhibits Gallery for traveling exhibits and an improved loading dock to get them in and out of the center; an area called "Hands on Minds on" for new interactive exhibits; and visitor amenities such as an expanded lobby and a cafe.

Staying current

With the city, the science center is also exploring plans to build a parking garage beneath neighboring Rash Field as a way to get more people to start their Inner Harbor visit near the science center. All this work is planned in addition to changes under way since 1999 as part of the science center's "Discover the World" campaign.

They include SpaceLink, an exhibit on outer space and cosmology that opened in 1999; renovations that enabled the IMAX theater to show IMAX 3-D presentations; BodyLink, an exhibit on the human body and health that will open this spring, and an expanded Kids Room and Learning Lab.

Andorfer said the physical improvements were prompted largely by the changing nature of science centers and the rapidly increasing amount of information they need to present.

"A century ago, scientific information was doubling every generation," he said. "By the 1950s, it was doubling every decade. Now it's doubling every two years. The challenge facing science centers is: How do you stay current and deliver information to visitors in a timely fashion?"

The science center's solution is to supplement traditional, museum-like fixed exhibits with a series of changing exhibits, or electronic "links," that can constantly update information in various scientific fields through photos, videos and other programmable media.

Each of its major fixed exhibits will have such a companion link: SpaceLink for outer space, BodyLink for the human body and health, and TerraLink for earth sciences.

These areas will also include stages or platforms for in-person presentations. Last year five astronauts, including two from Maryland, met with schoolchildren in the SpaceLink shortly after returning from space. They also communicated with students gathered at the science center while they were on board the International Space Station.

Bonnie VanDorn, executive director of the Association of Science-Technology Centers in Washington, says the changes at the science center are part of an international trend.

Today's science centers are often more driven by subject than collection, she said, and curators don't pretend to have all the answers. As a result, exhibits are typically more interpretive than they once were - conveying to visitors not only what scientists know but what they hope to learn.

"Science isn't about facts," she said. "It's about inquiry. Science centers attempt to give visitors a chance to understand and participate in the inquiry process."

Flexible design

Richard Burns, head of Design Collective, said his team toured science centers around the country and found that one key to success is flexibility. He said his clients have made it clear they want a building that can change over time, or even from day to night.

"A lot of museums are viewed as being very fixed in terms of utilities and lights and columns," he said. "There's no opportunity for change or adaptivity over time. But the Maryland Science Center [expansion] is designed to be highly flexible."

Through a combination of public and private funds, the science center has raised $28 million of the $37 million needed to complete its upgrade, and directors would like to raise another $5 million before they start building the new wing.

Of the funds raised so far, $21.5 million has come from the state of Maryland, Baltimore City and Baltimore County; $1.5 million from federal grants; and $5 million from private sources.

If sufficient additional funds can be raised in time, Andorfer said, he hopes to begin construction by midyear and open the new wing in 2004.

Early flaws

Designed by Edward Durrell Stone, the science center was one of the first public attractions on the Inner Harbor shoreline when it opened in 1976.

But it had flaws from the beginning: a small lobby, an inadequate loading dock, a fixed octagonal grid that limited options for displays and windowless walls facing the Inner Harbor.

In the mid-1980s, directors launched a renovation to reorient the building to the waterfront, with a large glass window facing the harbor and a lobby off the shoreline promenade.

The next year, they added an IMAX theater that could remain open when the rest of the science center was closed.

Andorfer, who became head of the science center five years ago, said the IMAX theater was valuable because the changing films helped attract more visitors.

Now, he said, "What we want to do is create a science center where it doesn't matter what IMAX show is here or what traveling exhibit is here. There will be enough to do for kids of all ages, because the basic experience is better."

By creating an "ESPN Zone of science," he hopes to erase the image of the science center as a static attraction. "We have this kind of mausoleum of a building that was never very functional as an interactive setting," he said. "This will give us the square footage we need to do a lot more things on a flexible basis, and it will have a more inviting lobby that will signal what we're all about."

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