Recent visits and collaborations with public aquariums and their designers, have revealed the following trends in design and interpretation for live animal exhibitions:
1. Interpretation includes stories about individual animals.
To engage the mind with scientific interpretation is perhaps not enough anymore; people like to have their heartstrings tugged. At the John G. Shedd Aquarium (Chicago), visitors learn of Bubba, the grouper who's grappling with cancer; and Nickel, the sea turtle who swallowed a 5¢ coin that lodged in his throat (photo). Bubba's message: The aquarium went to great lengths to partner with the local hospital to take really good care of me. Nickel's message: animals need safe homes too – and the way that humans use (or abuse) the natural environment has effects.
2. A visit is more than just animal exhibits.
Spectacular animal collections and beautiful exhibitions will not compensate for inadequate amenities. Inconvenient parking, a lackluster arrival experience (photo), and lousy food service and gift shops will eclipse the reason why visitors think they came in the first place: to see the animals. Many of the Las Vegas aquariums (like that at the Mirage) have done well to incorporate views into animal habitats while visitors are being ticketed, while they are dining, and while they are shopping. These kinds of incidental encounters with the animals ensure that good impressions and a sense of value are being made across the structure of the visit.
3. Size matters.
BIG is memorable. Most of the Japanese aquariums and the new "world class" aquariums in the US are featuring numbers in the 6 million gallons-per-tank range. Acrylic configurations are interesting and immersive, designed to heighten the thrill factor and maximize viewing. We're seeing a trend toward wider and shallower big views in order to surround visitors in the immensity of ocean environments.
4. Offer a One-and-Only.
At the Radisson Blu Hotel in Berlin, the precariously perched AquaDom tank, located in the lobby, features an elevator ride through the middle of the cylindrical aquarium (photo). You can do this only in Berlin.
The Nagoya Public Aquarium is the only place where you can visit at night and witness captive sea turtles laying their eggs on replicated beaches.
In Sydney, Australia, you may see rare, Southern Ocean dugongs.
More and more, aquarium designers are being driven by the criteria to create a one-and-only attraction. In the future, we'll see more large-scale habitats, more motion, more interesting husbandry protocol, more conservation practices (like breeding/re-introduction programs) on view, and more charismatic animals like manta rays, giant sharks, and huge schools of pelagic fish.
5. You can be linear and free-flowing.
People appreciate a sense of cognitive organization but they tend to move through physical space in random patterns – like serial clicking on the internet. Linear exhibits with narrative interpretation are becoming shorter to coincide with visitors' dwindling attention spans, and many aquariums now offer several thematically-structured exhibits (rather than an overarching narrative) to facilitate choice. At the Georgia Aquarium, visitors depart from a central hub and journey through any of five divers' experiences in a classic hub-and-spoke arrangement that is basically a "shopping mall" of experiences. I suspect that the public consensus would jive with my own: I felt in control and empowered to make selections, I felt fine about splitting up and regrouping with my party, and I even re-visited favorite attractions all within the frame of a single visit.
6. Offer kid-friendly exhibit experiences.
With families being most aquariums' key audience, they must offer something for young, energetic visitors. Kids need things to touch, and safe places to run, jump and play
7. Perhaps water and technology do not mix.
Viewing animals IS interactive – and if it isn't broke, don't fix it. Computer-based technology in front of tank windows is a bad idea. Consultation with several institutions suggests that their visitors actually came to get away from computers and simulated experiences. According to Mike Delfini, Director of Design at the Shedd Aquarium, their electronic animal ID systems (photo) have met with visitors' approval, however their other technological offerings are not so popular.
8. People come to see the animals – end of story.
"Learning Galleries" with little or no animals: bad idea. "Conservation Labs" with preachy messages and few living animals: bad idea. When it comes to education, people do enjoy demonstrations, guided programs, and privileged tours of the back-of-the-house like those offered by the Georgia Aquarium. Here, live animals and human/animal interactions are featured and appreciated.
9. Punctuate the self-guided visit with guided events.
From behavioral demonstrations with marine mammals to smaller-scale trained fish shows and timed feeding programs, people love to gain access to the world of the trainers and animal keepers. The Shedd is delighting its guests in smaller venues (40 people at a time) with programs such as Trainer for a Day, and special animal encounters.
10. Offer indoor and outdoor experiences in order to provide a sense of place and a change of pace.
Outdoor venues can host large and unique experiences and strengthen an institution's connection to its city or setting. The Puerto Rico Aquarium features 40,000 square feet of exhibits under usually sunny skies, and Orlando's Discovery Cove has the feel of a tropical inlet. Fee-flight aviaries serve to remove the perception of barriers. In my own city of Boston, the New England Aquarium's new marine mammal facility (photos) features wonderful views of Boston Harbor and above- and below-water views of..... California sea lions?
Number 11 bonus trend: Be local and exotic.
California sea lions in Boston? Aquariums and zoos are strengthening their interpretation of local and regional ecology in an effort to create relevancy for local visitors and align with state science curriculum standards for school kids. At the same time, they're offering enticingly exotic animals and habitats in an effort to lure thrill-seekers and prove themselves as world-class attractions.