Aquarium expands space, expectations

$74 million Australian-themed addition is all about giving visitors a reason to return

December 11, 2005|By EDWARD GUNTS | EDWARD GUNTS,SUN REPORTER

When the National Aquarium in Baltimore opened in 1981 as the centerpiece of the Inner Harbor's revitalization, it was a bold and risky venture for a city fishing for tourists. The building with neon blue waves and rooftop pyramids made an instant splash - and triggered a wave of aquarium-building nationwide.

As Baltimore's aquarium prepares for the Friday opening of "Animal Planet Australia: Wild Extremes," a $74.6 million expansion, it's no longer the urban curiosity it was.

Seeking to emulate Baltimore's success, two dozen U.S. cities or states have opened aquariums since 1981, and still others are in the works. Just last month, Atlanta opened the $290 million Georgia Aquarium, which bills itself as the world's largest.

Despite this construction boom elsewhere, the Baltimore aquarium's executives say they believe their attraction will not only continue to stand out - but that attendance will climb from 2004's roughly 1.5 million visitors to 2 million annually by 2010.

As for competition, they express steely confidence, even in the face of the Georgia behemoth. It's not size alone that matters, they insist, but the quality of the collections and how they are displayed.

As long as Baltimore's aquarium can maintain the global sweep of its collection, its trademark immersive environments, attention to detail and exotic creatures, they say, it will succeed even as other aquariums appear on the scene.

"A zoo has a park or garden atmosphere. This is more of a museum experience, one with the great advantage of having live animals as the subject matter," said David Pittenger, executive director of the National Aquarium.

Given the proliferation of aquariums, "There has to be something that distinguishes you," Pittenger said. "We benefit from the fact that we display environments and creatures from all over the world. That's an advantage. People are looking for diversity. They're looking for a broad collection. And that's where we excel."

But the competition is not just other aquariums or zoos. It's also the Orioles and the Maryland Science Center and Harry Potter and PlayStation.

"It's not aquarium to aquarium," said Jane Ballentine, a spokeswoman for the American Zoo and Aquarium Association. "The Shedd Aquarium [in Chicago] and the National Aquarium are not competing for the same tourist base. On any given day, it's the movies and shopping and kids sitting at home in front of the television. It's all the other leisure activities."

Even with the growing number of options, aquariums have developed a sizable following. The top 10 aquariums in the country draw upward of 10 million visitors a year.

"Some people have said it's a fad, that the trend has peaked," said Peter Chermayeff, co-founder of Chermayeff and Poole, the architect for Baltimore's expansion and other aquariums around the world. "We've always disputed that, and time now is proving us right.

"Nature appeals to every man, woman and child," he said. "Whether they're illiterate or fully educated, rich or poor, all people are drawn to life. Why shouldn't every city have a downtown museum of nature, just like every city wants a downtown museum of art - or in some cases half a dozen?"

Aquariums had their beginnings in the United States in the 1800s as eclectic collections of fish, reptiles and assorted "curiosities," assembled by showmen, the most famous of whom was P.T. Barnum. The attractions weren't always educational. One featured the "FeeJee Mermaid," which was the top of a mummified monkey sewn to the rear of a fish.

Early aquariums included the New York Aquarium in Coney Island (1896), the Steinhart in San Francisco (1923) and the John G. Shedd (1930).

Baltimore's aquarium was part of a later wave of waterfront revitalization projects that treated aquariums as part natural history exhibit, part economic engine and part tourist magnet. Boston's New England Aquarium (1969) is in the same category, as are the Seattle Aquarium (1977) and the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California (1984).

They were followed by aquariums in New Orleans; Charleston, S. C.; Tampa and Orlando, Fla.; Chattanooga, Tenn.; Long Beach, Calif.; Denver; Camden, N.J.; and Atlanta, among others.

Over the years, planners have taken many different approaches to distinguish one project from another. There are aquariums with a regional theme, aquariums that mix human history with natural history, aquariums featuring the latest advances in acrylics and other materials to surround visitors with water, and aquariums that blur the lines between retail and exhibit space.

Some have flourished and expanded, such as those in Monterey Bay and Tennessee. Others have struggled. Camden's aquarium has had several makeovers. Denver's was bought by a restaurateur. New Orleans' was severely damaged by Hurricane Katrina and will be closed until mid-2006.

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