Public aquariums in America struggle with their place between education and entertainment: how does an institution which relies on public and private funding balance its obligations to inform the public about climate change? Aquarists deal with this issue constantly. How do you educate the public about climate change without losing their interest or politically alienating them?
In the mid to late 19th century, public aquariums were somewhat like jewelry boxes: they held beautiful species of exotic fishes that had previously been inaccessible to the eyes of humans. Small tanks, little narrative structure, and very little information on the natural habits and habitats of the exhibits comprised these early displays- but people flocked to them and the first generation aquariums were a huge success.
By the turn of the twentieth century, aquariums began to change. Some aquariums, like the New York Aquarium, Scripps Institute, Steinhart, and by 1930, the Shedd, added laboratories and enhanced exhibitions with information on the life cycle of the organisms, their environment, and the impact of humans on these creatures. Called the second generation aquariums, these organizations took a step towards a more realistic view of the marine environment in the public aquarium setting. (all of these aquariums have since been updated)
After a long period in which aquarium growth was stagnant, the 1980s saw an increase in interest from the public in aquarium building. One of the most popular, and possibly the most advanced aquarium constructed in the 1980s, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, took aquariology to new heights. With its kelp forest, open ocean exhibit, and its integration into the surrounding shoreline of Monterey Bay, the aquarium allowed visitors to not only view exotic creatures, but to understand their place in the ecosystem of the marine environment off the California coast. Monterey Bay and other third generation aquariums pushed the climate change and environmental message through their use of local understandings of environmental change.
But, times have changed. After Monterey, an explosion of public aquariums were built in hopes of increasing tourism in upcoming urban centers. But, they have not been the draw that people expected, and the ability for aquariums to maintain a scientific message has been overshadowed by their need to draw crowds just to stay open. The Atlanta Aquarium, the largest in the world, was believed to be the next generation in public aquariums- truly integrating the Atlantic ocean into the aquarium experience, focusing on conservation and environmental messages, and teaching these important messages through interactive exhibits. But, their messages have fallen on deaf ears, and the need to maintain such a massive institution has lead to a public aquarium with a message closer to a theme park. For $169.99 you can swim with dolphins and belugas; $324.95 buys a scuba diving experience with the only whale sharks in captivity in North America (or you can go for the bargain basement $224.95 to merely swim with the sharks).
Lest we be too hard on the Atlanta Aquarium, remember that funding is important. Scripps, one of the oldest marine institutions in America, has just had to shut down its library due to budgetary constraints. Other public institutions have also suffered from the economic downturn.. With limited government support, public science institutions are forced to draw as many visitors as possible. Exotic animals, unrealistic environments, and thoughtless entertainment mean big bucks!
The Atlanta Aquarium has failed in its bid to start the fourth generation of aquariums; in fact, we could see it as a huge step back in aquariology. But unless funding for public science institutions becomes a priority, there will no longer be progress at these institutions. But instead, they may devolve into their first and second generation counterparts- displaying exotic organisms with little scientific commentary to get money from the masses.
For information on aquarium generations:
Grant and Jones (2005) Window to the Sea: Behind the Scenes of America’s great public Aquariums.
McCormack, Douglas "The Age of Aquariums" Sea Frontiers Vol. 39 Issue 2 (1993)