Public aquariums have been around since the 1850s, but they were much different than what we see today. The Fish House at the ZSL London Zoo, opened in 1853 and was nothing more than a collection of glass tanks in a greenhouse. The new technology of manufacturing and arranging glass panes to hold water allowed visitors to view aquatic life in its element.
Public aquariums today house some of the largest enclosed aquatic spaces, home to thousands of aquatic species. Many of them are just a much larger scale of the first public aquariums. Most visitors quickly make their way through the exhibits, marvel at the inhabitants, and move on.
Public aquariums of the future have more responsibility than just displaying interesting exhibits to visitors. Conservation and research are of paramount importance to the future of marine and freshwater habitats. With growing demand for these types of programs from visitors, aquariums will have to adapt or fail.
When Rose and I visited the St. Louis aquarium at Union Station recently, we definitely enjoyed the exhibits and their inhabitants. There were some impressive displays and unique ideas. The purpose of the St. Louis aquarium, like many others, is to boost the local economy as an attraction and place for families to come spend time and money. Many aquariums serve this purpose expertly while also educating their visitors.
Future public aquariums will have to accomplish both a conservation, research, and education driven mission while also providing entertainment for guests and contributing to the local economy.
The First Public Aquariums
The first public aquariums in the United States were the Woods Hole Science Aquarium in Massachusetts (1885), the New York Aquarium (1896), Detroit’s Belle Isle Aquarium (1904), and Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park (1911). Most of the early public aquariums started as traveling tank displays. The 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis featured some of the first aquarium displays.
Detroit Public Aquarium 1890
Early spectators were mostly attracted by the spectacle of the new technology allowing the keeping of fish, not education, conservation, or even the fish themselves. Before the Fairmount Park exhibit in Philadelphia became permanent in 1911, it was just a series of jeweled boxes in a dark hallway. This setup attracted visitors day after day, in awe of the new technology. In 1917, the exhibit received 663 fish for exhibition; by the end of the year, 454 had died. Spectators still returned day after day to marvel at the technology itself, showing little enthusiasm for the inhabitants.
Most of the specimens displayed in early aquariums were local species. Trout, catfish, sunfish, and even goldfish were common in the exhibits.
Aquariums didn’t start collecting tropical species until 1915. Groups of aquariums combined resources and collected from the Florida coast and the Key West region. They collected hundreds of new species with no concern for conservation of marine life or habitat.
Some aquariums were concerned with animal conservation, but not systematically. Charles Townsend, the second director of the New York Aquarium in 1902, was not concerned with the conservation of porpoises, seals, or sea lions. He worked with the U.S. Fish commission and knew of the level of depletion from collection. He still collected specimens from the Atlantic coast for exhibition. Townsend did attempt and ultimately succeeded in saving a species of Galapagos tortoise from extinction in 1929. The species successfully bred in captivity and is currently being reintroduced to the wild.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium was founded in 1984 under the guiding principle of conservation. It is a prime example of what public aquariums can accomplish for their visitors and the environment. The Monterey Bay Foundation and the Monterey Bay Aquarium research institute have been responsible for countless scientific discoveries and conservation projects around the world.
Public Aquariums Now
Continuing into the present, many aquariums are struggling financially. The Denver aquarium was open only three years before declaring bankruptcy and then sold to Landry’s, a hospitality company.
The enormous undertaking that is the multidisciplinary challenge of building a functioning aquarium on such a scale has always come with a multitude of complications. In the name of conservation, many organizations have tried to scale the mountain that is opening a public aquarium. If they succeed, major steps can be taken toward saving wildlife and natural habitats. If they fail however, the sunk cost and ultimate loss of acquired resources are devastating.
Now more than ever, new aquariums are built with conservation in mind. While failure is always lurking, undertaking such a massive and risky project with conservation as the goal may be worth the risk. If the aquarium succeeds, they are able to give back to the environments they took from to build the exhibits. If they fail, they will have only hurt the environments they intended to save.
It is crucial new aquariums are built with conservation in mind and give back to the environments they mimic. Even more important, new aquariums should build on the success of others, and grow their exhibits from existing projects, not from the natural environment.
Even though conservation may be the purpose, much like the aquariums of old, visitors are drawn not by the intended purpose, but to marvel at the specimens and what the latest technology can do.
When Rose and I visited the St. Louis aquarium, we did so because as an avid aquarist, I intend to visit any public aquarium in any city I travel to. Most of the other visitors that day, I expect, were there to “look at the fish”. Each family with children in tow, the St. Louis aquarium has many exhibits intended for children.
In 2010, the perceived main purpose of public aquariums was to contribute to the local economy. Many aquariums still follow this paradigm, attracting families with kid friendly activities and exhibits. Like the St. Louis aquarium, a land-locked institution, they do not focus on conservation. But that opinion is changing.
Aquariums are now associated with leading animal rescue, rehabilitation and welfare, conservation education and building awareness about climate change, plastic pollution, sustainable seafood and marine protected areas.
Aquariums in the Future
Imagine taking your family to the aquarium in 20 years and every exhibit is not an acrylic tank filled with water and living species, but a flat digital screen with active computer generated images swimming around and acting real. The aquarium touts 4-D experiences and tries to recreate what natural marine habitats would look like if they still existed. Like the aquarium visitors of Fairmount park in 1917, you came to see new technology and how real they could make it look, but there are no living specimens to behold.
This future is completely plausible if aquariums continue to prioritize profit over conservation instead of simultaneously achieving both. Visitors are starting to value conservation. Aquariums can still financially benefit from conversation focused exhibits that give back to marine and freshwater environments. These values, proudly displayed and practiced, will attract even more visitors as the classic reasons to visit an aquarium are still there as well.
A different future is one in which aquariums embrace all the channels available to them to bring aquatic worlds to life. As research hubs, aquariums will work to achieve sustainability, conservation, and preservation of aquatic habitats. Visitors from all over the world will come to marvel at the massive scale under which these efforts are carried out while still enjoying the classic aquarium experience.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium is a good example of using camera feeds and social media to bring their conservation-based aquarium exhibits to enthusiasts globally. While I type this article, I have their live jellyfish cam playing in the background.
Aquariums of the future will take action outside their exhibit walls. The Aquarium Conservation Partnership, the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums, and the South African Association for Marine Biological Research are taking real steps to reduce plastic pollution in the world’s oceans.
Aquariums of the future will partner with outside organizations to campaign for conservation. The IUCN and WAZA have partnered with government agencies, NGOs, zoos, aquariums, and botanical gardens as part of their Reverse the Red Campaign to facilitate the health of natural ecosystems.
One of the most popular aquariums in the world is also most associated with conservation and research. The Monterey Bay Aquarium in northern California has a rich history and I highly recommend visiting their “Our History” page for a gallery of what a conservation-minded aquarium can do.