Give yourself and your family a great present this holiday: Give them the gift of experience.
The Calvert Marine Museum is a great way to experience all of what the Chesapeake Bay has to offer. It has a lighthouse for climbing, and workboats to view. There is a tank of rays for visitors to touch, seahorses on exhibit, an expansive paleontology wing - the largest Miocene collection outside the Smithsonian - and two friendly swimming otters.
Take the kids now. Not just because it’s Christmas break and you’re looking for ways to keep them engaged and occupied, but also because you won’t have too many more chances this season.
That’s right - the museum is closing on Dec. 30 for a major renovation project. It will open again in the spring. But museum director Douglas Alves doesn’t know when that will be, and it won’t be the whole museum. The estuarium, where the museum keeps its excellent collection of Bay creatures - seahorses, crabs, a hungry looking northern snakehead and gorgeous jellyfish, to name just a few - will be closed until October.
Alves told me the museum gets 78,000 visitors a year. That number seemed surprisingly low me, because the museum is so fantastic and has so much to see in such a manageable size. (You can read all about in this extensive Bay Journal article we did three years ago.)
It is hardly the only place to see boats around here - the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels, the Richardson boat building museum in Cambridge and the Annapolis Maritime Museum all have that well covered. Nor is it the only place to examine critters - Virginia Living Museum in Newport News has otters and all manner of wild creatures, and Baltimore’s National Aquarium has sharks, rays, anemones and just about every exotic fish you can name.
Still, this right-sized Solomon’s Island museum is unique among Bay attractions for its emphasis on paleontology as well as marine life and watermen’s culture. Much of the collection came from Calvert Cliffs nearby, which reveal a trove of fossils as they erode. Plus, it’s a two-hour drive from Baltimore, an hour from Annapolis, and about 90 minutes from Washington, D.C. And all of the museum’s marine life comes from the Bay, and is collected by museum staff biologists and aquarists.
Parking is free, the town is very walkable, and great restaurants abound. It’s a great daytrip, easy to do, and it will leave you yearning to come back when it’s warm out for a sail on the Patuxent or a kayak trip.
But back to the renovations. Calvert Marine Museum had a large auditorium that they were only using 50 days a year. They decided to level the floor, open the space, and use movable walls to have it flexible for lectures, exhibits, dinners and weddings. That will give the museum great multi-use space, and also much-needed revenue from events like weddings and banquets.
The estuarium will look completely changed when the museum reopens, with better displays and lighting, television monitors with more information about the species and more opportunities for interaction.
This renovation isn’t the first time things have changed at the museum near the foot of the Thomas Johnson Bridge. Over time, the museum has acquired other structures, including the Lore Oyster House, the Drum Point Lighthouse on the property, and the Cove Point Lighthouse a few minutes away, which is now a bed and breakfast. But Alves said it’s the first time for major interior changes to the main museum, and the first time he can remember a complete closure to complete them.
As to why now, Alves said, it was just time.
“It’s 20 years old, and it was time for a change. I have a new curator now, and I listened to his ideas. We also listened to our visitors. We want them to be engaged, not spend one minute at a certain exhibit and walk away,” Alves said. “We just want people to learn more, take away more.”
It’s hard to imagine anyone not engaged here. There are rays to touch, fossils to dig for, a reconstructed shark skeleton to gape at and tank after tank of fascinating marine creatures. I love looking at the old boats, and I’ve visited the museum over the years with some locals who remember some of them when they plied the waters of the Patuxent for oysters. Encounters like that make me not only glad Calvert Marine Museum is here so I can amuse my children there, but grateful that it exists at all to preserve this crucial history.
But getting back to the children’s’ amusement: If you go, make sure to visit the river otters, Bubbles and Squeak. They are usually on display outside, their toddler-like antics sure to cheer up any sullen child. You can also buy a plush otter in the museum store as a reward if your child behaves beautifully; it may serve as a reminder of a great day and a push to possibly return.
My 8-year-old and I snuck in a quick visit this week before the museum closed. Though we live 20 minutes from the Baltimore Science Center and the National Aquarium, I think she preferred the Calvert Marine Museum to both of those. I’m sure come spring, whenever it reopens, we will be back.