A Museum Where Children Yearn to Learn
By Mary K. Feeney
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, April 14, 2006
It's odd what happens to the child-parent relationship inside Baltimore's Port Discovery Museum.
While many 21st-century parents sheepishly admit to overindulging their offspring, the scene here is of complete, albeit pretend, role reversal.
In a make-believe '50s diner, a mother is displeased with the service. "Waiter, waiter! We haven't gotten our food yet," she yells to her toddler son, who hustles over with a plate of fake spaghetti, fried chicken, cake and macaroni. Another boy chooses the dinner music, punching the jukebox keys for "I Got You, Babe."
In the Amazing Castle, a re-creation of a medieval village, little girls wearing capes and peasant costumes pluck plastic vegetables from a brown felt "garden," loading them on trays to feed their moms waiting in the Great Hall. "Oh, that looks delicious," one mother says. "I don't know if we can eat all that food!"
Adults, who ostensibly come here to watch their kids having fun, often end up playing, too: the two moms competing in a conveyor-belt widget game, a la Lucy and Ethel in the chocolate factory, the middle-aged dad contorting himself in front of the fun house mirror and the two guys having a ball with a giant labyrinth game.
Children older than 5 and their parents can climb KidWorks, a three-story, industrial-looking "urban" tree house with tunnels, bridges, ropes, and sound and light effects.
Heard more than once on a recent afternoon: "Dad, can I do it just one more time?"
The museum merges fun with learning, which sounds like a cliche, but it does it in subtle, clever ways. The posted hours for karaoke at the MPT Studio, for example, are "From 9:30 ante meridian to 12:30 post meridian." A nearby clock is labeled "Time Now." Scattered throughout the 80,000-square-foot space are magnet boards where messages can be left, games built into walls and areas for mask-making and bridge-building with plastic pieces and mega-logs for junior engineers. Musical instruments -- from drums to a piano with its wire strings exposed -- are available for improvisation.
Two ongoing exhibits emphasize sleuthing skills and problem solving. Miss Perception's Mystery House, for ages 6 and older, challenges visitors to find the four members of the Baffeld family. Creepy, darkened rooms, talking mice in the walls and a magical mirror yield clues. In "Adventure Expeditions," for ages 7 and older, visitors join the hunt for a pharaoh's tomb in 1920s Egypt and along the way decipher hieroglyphics, use special scopes that divulge dark secrets and crank an old field radio for hints to the monarch's burial site.
Phillip Cardon, an associate professor at Eastern Michigan University, was visiting from the Detroit area with his four children, ages 7, 9, 14 and 15. All of them were puzzling in front of an interactive game in which they had to match Egyptian symbols against the clock. "They love this," Cardon said. "This is one of the things they wanted to see" in Baltimore.
The Amazing Castle, where kids play the parts of lords, ladies and villagers, has been a big draw for younger children, said Pam Wagner, the museum's coordinator of public relations and promotions. "The best thing is that the citizens have to work together to make the community work," she said.
The castle, a traveling exhibit, will close May 7 , to be replaced by "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood -- A Hands-On Exhibit" from May 27 to Sept. 3 . "Clifford the Big Red Dog" moves in from Sept. 30 to May 13, 2007.
Port Discovery has been around a while (the former Baltimore Children's Museum at the Cloisters in Lutherville, Md., reopened as Port Discovery in 1998 in the historic Fish Market building) and is still packing them in, with more than 2 million visitors since the reopening. It was rated fourth best of 300 children's museums in the nation by Child Magazine in 2002.
For some local parents, the museum is a regular destination. "We're here all the time," said Kristin Weisman of Lutherville, who was being served in the diner by her 3-year-old daughter, Madeline, and her friend Alana Brown, 4. "They call it 'the museum,' like it's 'their' museum."