Photo via Port Discovery Children’s Museum
Photo via Port Discovery Children’s Museum

Baltimore’s Port Discovery children’s museum finally has a port–and a ship to sail in it.

The S.S. Friend Ship is one of two major exhibits created as part of a $10.5 million renovation of the museum, the first comprehensive makeover since it opened in 1998.

Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young and museum leaders held a ceremonial “ship christening” today to mark the grand opening of the exhibits and completion of the renovations to the museum, at 35 Market Place.

The Port of Baltimore plays a critical role in Maryland and is an important story to share with children, said museum president and CEO Bryn Parchman. With the new exhibit, she said, “we celebrate the port. We celebrate the city. We celebrate the state.”

Parchman said the museum wanted to create replacement exhibits that stretch kids’ imaginations, tell stories about Baltimore and Maryland, and offer experiences they couldn’t get elsewhere. The target age range for visitors is 0 to 10.

“This is a wonderful, wonderful place,” said Young, who tested one of the new slides before the ceremony began. “I call it the Disneyland of Baltimore. Port Discovery is a special place not only for people who live here but visitors as well.”

“It’s incredible to see the reimagining of this space,” marveled Doug Becker, founding chair of the museum and co-chair of its Playing Today, Leading Tomorrow fundraising campaign.

The Port exhibit features a large sculpture that looks as if a cargo ship plowed through one wall of the museum and remains suspended in mid-air. This is the first time the museum has featured an exhibit about the port.

In keeping with Port Discovery’s focus on learning through play, children will be able to join the ship’s crew as navigators, sailors and engineers, loading and unloading freight and navigating to far-off destinations. The captain’s wheel in the exhibit was donated by John Timmins of the Maryland Port Administration, in memory of his father and uncle, who served in the military.

Photo via Port Discovery Children’s Museum
Photo via Port Discovery Children’s Museum

A second new attraction is a four-story “SkyClimber” exhibit that replaced the KidWorks climbing structure previously at the center of the museum. The SkyClimber exhibit frames the ship replica, putting it on the periphery of the space. Thematically, it takes kids from under water up into the clouds. Parchman describes it as “a metaphor for reaching high and thinking big.”

Other recent improvements include a revamped lobby, upgraded bathrooms, new family seating areas, a new nursing area and an exhibit about the history of the building itself. In the area below the S.S. Friend Ship is Chessie’s Grotto, a Chesapeake Bay-themed play area for toddlers complete with a serpentine likeness of Maryland’s Chessie the Sea Monster. The museum has plans for additional immersive exhibits on space, art and nature. 

Cambridge Seven Associates in Massachusetts was the architect for the project, and Roto of Dublin, Ohio, was the exhibit designer and fabricator. Lewis Contractors was the lead contractor.

The $35 million, 80,000-square-foot museum opened in December of 1998 and is housed in the city’s former Wholesale Fish Market, a 1906 structure by Simonson & Pietsch. At the time, directors touted it as the only children’s museum in the country with exhibits designed by Walt Disney Imagineering, a division of the company that operates Disney theme parks. The exhibit design team at Port Discovery was led by Academy Award-winning Imagineer Bran Ferren.

Disney used Port Discovery as a laboratory of sorts to try out ideas at a time when former CEO Michael Eisner was exploring the possibility of opening Disney attractions in urban centers like Baltimore.

Port Discovery’s former Disney-designed exhibits included Miss Perception’s Mystery House, where visitors collect clues to solve a mystery, and Adventure Expeditions, a simulated visit to ancient Egypt. They were so sophisticated that they went over the heads of many of the museum’s visitors, who weren’t old enough to appreciate the level of detail and technology that went into them. They also weren’t Baltimore-centric.

With the renovations, Baltimore has lost some of the last vestiges of Disney’s and Ferren’s work in the city. Miss Perception’s Mystery House is gone, but the Egypt exhibit is still in place, for now.

Port Discovery were financed with public and private funds, including more than $1 million from the state and $75,000 from the U.S. Department of the Interior.

This morning’s ribbon cutting was followed by a public grand opening at noon. The museum has raised admission to $17.95 for visitors aged 1 and older–children under 1 and members get in for free–a $2 increase from the old rate, which applied to visitors aged 2 and older.

Ed Gunts is a local freelance writer and the former architecture critic for The Baltimore Sun.