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The little museum that could

IN A WESTERN corner of the Inner Harbor, the Maryland Science Center is celebrating the recent opening of a new $35 million exhibit wing. On Pier 3, the National Aquarium is halfway through an even more ambitious and expensive expansion scheduled to open a year from now.

Meanwhile, at the eastern end of the harbor, at the edge of Little Italy, the Baltimore Public Works Museum is hoping to have some exterior lights installed on its pre-World War I building - if the city can come up with the money.

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This modest and tentative capital improvement is fitting for this unpretentious little repository of public works paraphernalia that bills itself simply and unself-consciously as "surprisingly interesting."

It doesn't explain why raw sewage sometimes gushes into the region's tributaries, as it did last week in the Gwynns Falls, or why water pipes burst with distressing frequency, as they did this past winter.

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But it does give a sense of the complexity - and history - of the city's water and sewer system.

Located in what once was the boiler room of the Eastern Avenue Pumping Station, the city-sponsored collection of artifacts, maps and photographs opened 22 years ago this August - a year after the aquarium and six years after the science center.

Of course, the aquarium gets far more visitors in a year, about 1.6 million, than the public works museum, which draws about 20,000 people annually, has had in its history. That's understandable: The aquarium is a world-class attraction; the other, a local curiosity. Then again, the aquarium charges a lot more, too: $17.50 for adults and $9.50 for children vs. $2.50 and $2 for the public works museum. The science center charges $14 and $9.50.

"One of the really important points about subsidizing a museum like this in the Inner Harbor is that there aren't a lot of affordable attractions," said Mari Ross, the museum's director. "If a family comes to the Inner Harbor for the day, we offer an alternative."

Or an addition. "We have a lot of groups that go to the science center or aquarium for half a day, then come here," she said.

A personal note: Back when my son was small - he's in his mid-20s now - we would periodically stop by the public works museum, and not just because of its affordability. He particularly liked Streetscape, the mock lifesize cutaway of the world of pipes and lines that lie beneath a city street. I liked the documentary that offered a brief history of Baltimore and its public works system from 1730 to modern times, with still period photos accompanied by narration, and the fact that the museum was never crowded and could be toured quickly. Happily, both Streetscape and the movie still exist, though Ross says the movie has been redone.

At the time, the harbor was a much different place. The museum, on Eastern Avenue near President Street, seemed to be at the edge of nowhere. After one visit in the mid-1980s, we sat and watched the demolition of the Scarlett Seed Co. to make way for what became the Scarlett Place condominiums.

Now, the Inner Harbor promenade runs by the museum, and the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront hotel is just down the street.

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The museum, which Ross says gets about three-quarters of its $220,000 annual operating budget from the city, has changed too. Most notably, there are a half-dozen computer stations with interactive games provided by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that will form the core of a new exhibit on engineering.

The museum has sharpened its educational focus through such means as the course for fifth-graders it has been piloting that teaches about the origins and treatment of the water system. It also has become somewhat more arty, with a current exhibit of sculptures made of machine parts and one of a crane made of old car parts.

But the core appeal of the place continues to be the bits of the past and facts from the present that are available from the displays, the movie and the staff. There's a shallow trough fashioned from white oak that served as a wastewater drain in the late 1700s and a photo from the 1930s of female "garbage sorters" picking bits of glass and metal from a trash-laden conveyor belt at the old Philadelphia Road incinerator.

"Recycling started a long time ago. It was not given such a glamorous name," said Ross.

The pumping station that houses the museum was completed in 1912, the first and largest of 20 in the city's system. It handles wastewater from downtown and South Baltimore, boosting it through pipes to Broadway, where it travels downhill to the Back River treatment plant in eastern Baltimore County.

On average, the station pumps 30 million gallons of sewage a day. "When there is a Ravens game, it can go up to 80 million," said Ross.

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Surprisingly interesting, no?


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