What’s Working Today in Aquarium Theming?

Posted by Elizabeth Alton on Thursday, October 9th, 2014

Ocean Voyager Exhibit

We spend a lot of time thinking about the integration of theming, storytelling, technology and design to create exciting experiences in the entertainment world. Theme parks and live shows are some of the easiest entertainment venues to infuse with a sense of innovation, by using everything from actors and animatronics to costumes and elaborate sets. But zoos and aquariums are some of the more challenging venues to theme at scale. Zoos have seen a number of interesting approaches coming to the forefront recently, from the integration of big data applications to the latest “you’re not really in a zoo” designs. But how are some of the world’s leading aquariums helping guests have a meaningful experience when interacting with life beneath the waves?

A number of institutions are thinking outside the fish bowl (we couldn’t resist). There are several keys to making the most of the aquarium experience. One is by focusing on the sea life and related flora and fauna on display. How are they unique? How can they be showcased in a natural and interesting way? A good illustration of this is the Georgia Aquarium’s Ocean Voyager exhibit, which is home to whale sharks and manta rays. Another is by reducing the barriers between visitors and animals, to the degree that’s safe for all stakeholders. Dolphin swims, petting “zoos” with certain sea creatures such as starfish, and VIP tours that let guests interact with animals like resident penguins are common examples of this approach.

Underwater Tunnel

Often it’s the structure of the tanks themselves that invite the guest to go deeper into the aquarium experience. One option is creating vantage points, from overlooks that provide a top-down view or glass tunnels that bisect the water and lets guests feel like they’re walking on the ocean floor. Themed galleries also help offer a cohesive experience, around different types of water ecology, animals, or geographic zones. Technology is being integrated with the aquarium environment for everything from mobile apps to 4D movies. But what’s really working today?

The Association of Zoos and Aquariums recently awarded its Significant Achievement in Exhibit Design to the National Aquarium. Its Black Tip Reef exhibit has been described as “full of light, movement, and color.” It’s a large replica of the coral filled Indo-Pacific reefs, including impressive Black Tip sharks and a giant 500 lb sea turtle. The tank’s design was created “so that guests can experience from many vantage points, including a new floor-to-ceiling pop-out viewing window that allows guests to virtually come face to face with the animals.” The faux reef was painstakingly crafted from molds of living coral skeletons and contains more than 3000 individual pieces. It’s a great example of both attention to detail in crafting a setting and a cohesive theming around a specific topic.

Polar Play Zone

Putting marine exploration and aquarium concepts into terms that kids can understand is a major part of the aquarium design experience, since these venues cater so much to families with young children. The Shedd Aquarium in Chicago is an award-winning institution that is known for creative exhibit design. One area that’s geared toward young children is the Polar Play Zone, a play area that builds thematically on the North and South poles. Kids are encouraged to dress up like a penguin and pilot a submarine, while exploring the concepts of polar opposites — big and small, fast and slow, shallow and deep, even north and south — while they play.

Previously, we’ve explored some of the challenges of technology and interactivity in the aquarium context. The Monterrey Bay Aquarium’s Mission to the Deep is a great example of technology in an aquarium setting. Mission to the Deep builds on the Aquarium’s research expeditions, and offers interactive experiences that let users discover new fish species, explore a whale structure, and map an undersea mountain range. Another common approach for communicating value through technology focuses on underwater webcams that get displayed on the aquarium website. But there’s a lot of unexploited territory around the topic of creative technology use in this environment.

Mission to the Deep

Aquariums are important, because they serve as the first and best introduction to the wonders of what’s beneath the ocean’s surface for many members of the public. Beautiful tanks, themed galleries, and providing access to unique undersea life is a critical part of raising awareness for ocean life. But there’s so much more room for innovation, especially in the areas of technology, theming, and interactive exhibits. As the aquarium concept evolves, we look forward to seeing more examples that are less about being large-scale viewing opportunities and focus more on finding new ways to promote engagement, learning, and fun.

Image source: Wikimedia, Thody, Shedd Aquarium, Monterrey Bay Aquarium

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