Its mission moves toward advocacy


August 15, 1993|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Staff Writer

The Exploration Station exhibit at the National Aquarium in Baltimore gives visitors a chance to appreciate the world from an animal's point of view.

They lunge for a holographic image of a crab or squid, struggle to make a splash with a simulated whale fluke and listen in darkness to the sounds of walruses and sea lions.

To Executive Director Nicholas Brown, it's the aquarium of the future.

"This is a departure for us," Mr. Brown said when the exhibit was unveiled last month in the Marine Mammal Pavilion on Pier 4. "We're opening a part of the aquarium that is not principally focused on a live exhibit."

Mr. Brown predicts the interactive gallery will make a strong impression because it gives participants a feel for how marine mammals see, eat, breathe and move.

He contends that zoos and aquariums must do more to create a bond between people and animals so they will be motivated to protect the environment after their visit ends.

"We humans hold the future of the planet in our hands," he said. "We must take action. We must change our behavior. We must commit to recycling, to conservation, to preserving and protecting the habitats upon which all species depend."

In many ways, the $2 million display symbolizes a sea change at the National Aquarium, which opened 12 years ago this month.

At that time, the aquarium was seen primarily as an economic development to draw residents and tourists alike to Baltimore's rejuvenated waterfront.

It has succeeded beyond all expectations, attracting 1.5 million visitors a year and pumping more than $125 million into the local economy, including more than $5 million in taxes.

But what began as an engaging blend of entertainment and education is becoming a powerful advocacy organization.

More and more, aquarium staff and volunteers are capitalizing on the facility's popularity and fund-raising ability to carry out conservation projects that extend its influence far beyond Piers 3 and 4.

"The renowned psychologist B. F. Skinner said that education is not just filling minds with facts -- it's lighting a fire," Mr. Brown said.

"And that's precisely our challenge and mission: Not simply to fill our visitors with knowledge, but to inspire them to use what they learn here, to light the fire that will spark action."

Teaching vs. preaching

The conservation programs have sparked considerable discussion within the aquarium's 22-member board of governors over the extent to which the institution should veer from its original mission of education and cross the line into advocacy.

"There's an ongoing debate about preaching and teaching," said Paula Schaedlich, the National Aquarium's senior director of education and interpretation. "Part of our board says you should stop at teaching. Another part of the board says that given the state of the planet, you can't stop at teaching. So we're heading in the direction of advocacy and action."

A key issue is how to allocate the aquarium's $14 million annual budget given this new direction, Chairman Frank A. Gunther Jr. said.

"There is a sense that those leaning toward environmentalism and conservation may want to put a disproportionate share of resources into those activities and not as much into marketing and exhibits as we have in the past," he said. "The debate is, 'What is the proper balance? Where do we want to be 10 years from now?' "

Conservation push

One sign of the aquarium's new priorities was the establishment last year of a full-fledged conservation department, headed by Rosemary Krussman.

Among its activities is the Preakness Clean Up, in which hundreds of volunteers recycle trash left on the Pimlico infield after the Preakness Stakes. This year, volunteers recycled 12,600 pounds of aluminum and raised more than $8,600 to buy rain forest land near the Amistad National Park in Costa Rica.

Volunteers also have built and installed more than 1,500 nesting boxes for ducks to promote their breeding in state wetlands.

They have removed trash and other debris from the Assateague National Seashore, cleaned nearly a mile of shoreline along the Patapsco River and helped the National Audubon Society establish breeding colonies for puffins off the coast of Maine.

Since 1990, the aquarium's husbandry and medical departments have been part of the Marine Mammal Stranding Network, a consortium of institutions that rescue sick or injured marine animals up and down the East Coast.

The aquarium also has begun a fish breeding and research program at the new Aquaculture Research Center in Fells Point, in conjunction with the Columbus Center. The idea is to breed exotic fish in Baltimore so they don't have to be taken from the wild.

This month, the aquarium launched its most ambitious conservation effort when it sent eight staff members and volunteers to San Jose, Costa Rica, to help rebuild the Simon Bolivar Zoo, the country's only zoo.

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