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Keep Playing How one museum continues amid construction

Renovations are no joke. Imagine overseeing the renovation of a children’s museum with more than five million visitors in the past 20 years and that has not undergone any serious construction during that time. In that case, remodeling requires hiring contractors to remove exhibits, working with technicians to build new attractions, tearing down walls to make room for the new features, assuring all play structures are up to state codes and keeping dedicated staff employed.

That’s the task facing Port Discovery Children’s Museum, which is temporarily closed to make way for two new exhibits: SkyClimber and Port Exhibit. The solution: two new pop-up exhibits, the Construction Zone in the museum’s atrium and Port Discovery’s Pop-Up Play Space at the Shops at Kenilworth.

Talks of renovations for the museum began in 2016 as a part of the museum’s capital campaign. “We knew it was time for a change,” Port Discovery’s CEO Bryn Parchman says. “After 20 years with no major renovations, we decided it was time to provide new updated attractions to Baltimore.”

Before renovations could begin, the museum staff consulted with visitors and members and sought further input through surveys and reviews. In addition, staff solicited feedback from educators, board members, community members and external advisers and compared their responses with Port Discovery’s own knowledge of what works at the museum.

This feedback led to the development of 10 concepts that were evaluated by focus groups and underwent rounds of extensive exhibit concept testing. “We learned that our visitors understand and appreciate the value of learning through play, and we began to see just how broad and deep the notion of imaginative, purposeful, learner-driven play could become,” says marketing director Abbi Ludwig. After testing, staff decided to start construction on the Port Exhibit and SkyClimber, both which will open this spring.

In the meantime, there are the pop-ups. The idea was to create welcoming and inspiring, if temporary, facilities, says Pat Hoge, the museum’s vice president of education. “The minute families walk in, they want to play. They can see all the possibilities,” Hoge says.

The Construction Zone is a lively open space where kids dart from exhibit to exhibit and includes rocket launches, fitness bikes, dance games, arts and crafts, robot building and dress-up. The Pop-Up Play Space at the Shops at Kenilworth is the museum’s first satellite location and was developed through a partnership with Greenberg Gibbons. Some of the activities include educational drop-in programs, messy art and building activities.

Port Discovery museum members receive four free months of membership this year and discounted admission to the National Aquarium, the Maryland Zoo, the B&O Railroad Museum and the Baltimore Museum of Industry.

“Even though our museum is not currently completely open, families in Maryland still have other attractions and our pop-ups to keep their kids immersed in play,” Parchman says.

Architectural rendering of the new four-story SkyClimber at Port Discovery

The new SkyClimber exhibit replaces Kid Works, an iconic museum attraction.

“We wanted to have a new climber that was challenging and inspirational as well. With our SkyClimber you are literally climbing from under the sea to the top of the world,” Parchman says.

The new Port Exhibit will give kids insight to the inner working of a port. Children will engage in STEM activities, culture and art. “We picked the port because it has such a metaphorical and realistic influence over who we are,” Parchman says. “It was a great way for us to talk about what’s happening in the world and how global our world is. We want to get kids to think big.”

The Construction Zone in the atrium of the Port Discovery Children’s Museum is open Friday-Sunday; admission is $5 per person and free for members. Port Discovery’s Pop-Up Play Space at the Shops at Kenilworth is open Wednesday-Sunday and is free for all visitors.

About Cassidy Rafsol

When Adranisha Stephens isn’t chasing down a story, she is traveling, blogging, photographing or spending time with family and friends. She has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication from Frostburg State University and a master’s degree in journalism/digital storytelling from American University.

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