Aquatic Life on Display

It is a challenging and exciting time for aquariums.

For one thing, audiences’ expanding concern for animal rights and animal welfare forces aquariums and zoos to grapple with ethical questions. There was once a time when the mere entertainment value of animals was enough to justify putting them on display for humans.

Not surprisingly, such reasoning could only hold water for so long. In the 20th century, zoos and aquariums increasingly shifted their focus from entertainment to education, research, and conservation, and re-branded themselves as institutions that exhibited animals for the greater good of inspiring humans to protect species in the wild.

On the Center for the Future of Museums blog, Colleen Dilenschneider (author of the Know Your Own Bone blog), quotes National Aquarium CEO John Racanelli’s 2011 speech:

“In the 70s…I remember our standard rationale for keeping three orcas in a grungy, one-million-gallon tank was, ‘They’re ambassadors for their species.’ In some cases, little has changed. It’s a well-worn, familiar old saw and—in my view—it’s becoming increasingly less relevant every year.”

The benefits of exhibiting an ambassador for the species as a whole must be weighed against concerns for the well-being of the individual ambassador. In Dilenschneider’s blog post (written in July 2012), she states, “in the past four years, there has been an 11 percent increase in Millennial audiences who cite a conceptual objection to captive animals as the primary reason that they have not recently visited a zoo or aquarium.” Aquariums today are replacing stunt shows with opportunities to see more natural behavior, and in the case of Monterey Bay Aquarium’s exhibiting sharks, “each of the sharks was returned to its natural habitat when its continued display was no longer in the best interest of the shark’s well-being.”

Meanwhile, aquariums face the challenge of communicating to visitors the threats that climate change pose to aquatic species.  A New York Times article describes how aquariums must tread carefully in educating audiences about how they can fight climate change, without overwhelming people with the enormity of dismal news. And in some cases, aquariums are afraid to alienate visitors who deny global warming.

So how can aquariums, as well as zoos and museums that exhibit aquatic animals, make a positive difference for all the marine life on this planet?

Some examples can be found in a 2010 article in the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA)’s magazine Connect. The article details institutions that received grants from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) “to help educate the public about the ocean and to encourage better stewardship of the marine environment.”

Grants have been awarded to and/or involve a few sites in the greater DC region. For example, the National Aquarium in Baltimore is one of three aquariums that are developing a comprehensive training network and programs to teach interpreters how best to teach audiences about climate change. The National Aquarium in Baltimore, the Sant Ocean Hall at the National Museum of Natural History in DC, and the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center, are also all involved in the Marine Mammal Institute project with the North Carolina Aquarium Society.

National Aquarium in Baltimore

National Aquarium in Baltimore

Other places to see aquatic life in DC include:

The National Aquarium in Baltimore joined forces with the smaller National Aquarium in DC in 2003. Though I was not able to find any wildlife-related grants or awards – like the many given to the National Aquarium in Baltimore – won by the National Aquarium in DC, the latter did gain recognition in 2008 with a Downtown Experience award from the Downtown DC Business Improvement District following its revitalization after joining its Baltimore counterpart.

National Aquarium in DC

National Aquarium in DC

The AZA-accredited National Zoological Park may be best known for pandas, but visitors can also see critters of the water, including the stingrays, fish, and turtles in the Amazonia exhibit.

National Zoo

National Zoo

Less controversial than exhibiting aquatic animals is the exhibiting of aquatic plants. Visitors can delight in seeing (and photographing) lotuses and water lilies, along with cattails and other marsh plant life, at Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens. There are also animals that make their home here: the dragonflies and butterflies I saw up close when I visited, the beavers the park ranger told me about, and a variety of birds, reptiles, and amphibians.

Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens

Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens

How do you think aquariums can most effectively and ethically foster in their visitors a sense of stewardship for aquatic animals and plants?


November’s blog theme is Museums Versus the Problems of the World.


About Laura

Paralegal with Master of Arts in Teaching in Museum Education, frequent museum visitor, based in Washington, DC. I care about what museums can do, both in terms of public offerings and internal practices, to make the world a better place. I blog about museum education ("informed"), the social work of museums ("humane"), and visitor experience ("citizenry").
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