Port Discovery Launches New Chapter: 5-Year Plan

Port Discovery kickstarted its 25th anniversary in Baltimore by unveiling a new master plan for the children’s museum that will be implemented over the next five years.

A $17.5 million investment will support updates to Port Discovery exhibits that complement existing themes and structures, an expansion of its At Play Learning Institute for the education and child care workforce and a youth ambassador program.

The plan evolved over the last two years as Port Discovery partnered with the Children’s Museum of Denver and its design firm, the Exhibits Team, for the project.

Mike Yankovich, the Denver museum’s president and CEO, is also a former director of exhibits for Port Discovery who met the latter’s president and CEO, Carter Polakoff, when she was an intern 27 years ago.

Polakoff says of the museum’s upcoming additions, she is most looking forward to the new exhibits, which will broaden what the museum can offer for different ages, stages and abilities.

A low-sensory “SKIES” exhibit themed on changing sky rotations and cloudscapes will have reading nooks, a soft resting zone and pillow fort-building activity. And the “Sky Garden Climber” exhibit “will offer both physical activity and opportunities for environmental awareness appreciation,” Carter says.

“SKIES” low-sensory exhibit rendering | Photo courtesy of Port Discovery

“But most importantly,” she adds, “it’s gonna be really fun.”

The other new exhibits coming to Port Discovery will include a space fantasy themed science, technology, engineering, art and math (STEAM) exhibit, with activities like rover building, and a local food market and teaching kitchen.

The food piece was inspired by Denver but a good fit for Baltimore as well, Carter says, as it combats food deserts, supports healthy eating and brings different neighborhoods and cultures together.

Alien-themed STEAM exhibit rendering | Photo courtesy of Port Discovery

About $4 million is available to begin the master plan, with fundraising continuing over the next five years as the plan is completed in stages, allowing the museum to remain open for families.

A Look Back

Port Discovery announced the changes at a kickoff event in January, which also served as the first of many anniversary events to pay homage to its history.

Doug Becker, the museum’s founding board chair and leading donor, recalls being approached to help fund the project by then- Baltimore City Mayor Kurt Schmoke, who had an idea to transform the former fish market building on Market Place into a children’s museum.

Becker jumped in feet first—without any real idea of what he was doing.

“I realized I had left out one important question, and I did turn to him and say, ‘What’s a children’s museum?’” Becker says.

With a starter donation from former NationsBank (now Bank of America), he helped raise $35 million and drew from such experts as renowned pediatrician and child development theorist Benjamin Spock; Spock’s son, Michael Spock, behind the Boston Children’s Museum; and even designers from Disney.

Fast forward to 2018, and the museum launched its first capital campaign in 20 years to expand its programming and exhibits.

A new central port exhibit honoring Baltimore’s maritime history opened in 2019, along with a new early learning program, Fathers at Play, which was then scaled statewide via a grant from the Maryland State Department of Education.

Parents at Play launched in 2021. Both help caregivers implement play-based parenting strategies.

Now, in 2024, Port Discovery is expanding its early learning programming to cater to early childhood educators and the child care workforce and partner with Judy Center Early Learning Hubs and family support centers statewide.

“We’ve known for years that children learn best when they’re playing, and now after 25 years, the science has finally caught up,” says Dennis Rasmussen, formerly a state senator and county executive for Baltimore, and now the chairman of the board for Port Discovery.

Rendering of sky garden exhibit in the museum’s atrium | Photo courtesy of Port Discovery

Besides its educational relevance, the decision to expand programming was influenced by recent changes from the state. The adoption of the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future and the Maryland First Act led the state to implement strategies to strengthen the early childhood workforce, including a new requirement for all daycare workers to be certified.

Port Discovery will offer training, workshops and service hours to help workers with that goal.

“We’re in a pilot phase, so we’re waiting with the city right now and the school systems and the state to figure out what certification would look like,” Carter says.

Until then, the museum will expand the reach of its early learning programs for parents, engage in research with early learning and child care experts, partner with universities and design a new classroom space.

Kids will also play an important role in the research phase, with one means of feedback coming from a new youth ambassador program for ages 5 to 11 called Discovery Crew. The ambassadors will also participate in special events and outreach campaigns.

“I just think hearing from the kids is [going to] be one of the most important parts of this process,” Carter says.

Celebrate!

Throughout 2024, Port Discovery will continue its anniversary celebration with special events. The next few are slated for February and April.

  • Feb. 17 – “Let It Shine” – a celebration of Black culture through interactive experiences, art projects, storytelling, history and science, engineering, technology and math (STEM)
  • Feb. 24 – “Hops & Vines” – a 21+ event for parents and other adults to sample from breweries and wineries around the region
  • April 12 – “Play It Forward” – signature fundraising gala for adults with drinks and dancing

About Lindsay VanAsdalan

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