Ocean View

For natural history museums, new exhibits are a balancing act.

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To enter the National Museum of Natural History’s new Sant Ocean Hall, you must first pass the institution’s iconic African elephant. Here the taxidermied remains of an actual elephant — shot dead in the wild and given to the institution by a big-game hunter in 1954 — stand guard over the knowledge contained within.

But are the elephant’s days as a sentinel of natural science numbered? Behind it, in Ocean Hall, a large artificial whale floats above the 23,000 square feet of exhibition space devoted to the world’s seas. Phoenix — the Hall’s “ambassador,” as the museum repeatedly refers to it — is a full-size foam-and-mâché replica of an actual North Atlantic right whale. Whereas the rotunda’s anonymous bull elephant last raised his trunk over the African savanna more than half a century ago, the real Phoenix still swims in the waters off the East Coast. In fact she became a grandmother last year, and was spotted this summer in the Gulf of Maine.

So while the moribund elephant inspires awe of the species, the surrogate “Phoenix” encourages affection for the individual. Such is the ongoing transformation of the modern science institution. Indeed, throughout Ocean Hall are the latest signs of the natural history museum’s slow march from eclectic collections of stuffed and preserved specimens, to entities that must educate without boring, elucidate without offending, advocate without annoying.

The old guard.

The 45-foot, 2,300-pound Phoenix makes an appropriate ambassador for Ocean Hall: It’s a massive place, the largest single exhibition space in the museum. One of the institution’s three original wings was renovated as part of its creation. The space was devoted to ethnology at the museum’s 1910 opening, but over time transformed — before Ocean Hall, it housed exhibitions on Asian-Pacific and native North American cultures. A $21-million renovation has returned the hall to its original Beaux Arts design, complete with its original paint colors and plaster detailing. A mezzanine was removed, and today the space soars uninterrupted to the skylights 54 feet above the floor.

Here the Smithsonian and the partnering National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration present the ocean in all its wonder. There’s a 6-foot jaw of the Giant Great White Shark, an extinct species that dwarfs its contemporary Jaws relative; a wide collection of fossilized trilobites; and a 24-foot giant squid (preserved in fluid “funded through the generous support of 3M”).

Yet for all the beasts the oceans hold, the message here is not that the bodies should be feared, but that they should be understood and appreciated. Throughout the hall, a blue handprint identifies displays that explore the human uses for the oceans — food, oxygen, transportation — as well as our impact on them — overfishing, pollution, beach reengineering. One display explains that if you were to lose your sunglasses in the middle of the open ocean, it would take 45 minutes for them to reach the sea floor: A distance that was once difficult to comprehend, then, is reduced to the length of a commute.

Sant, however, quickly becomes more than an exhibit on the oceans. Here the drama of the seas plays out alongside that of the museum.

Like many contemporary exhibits, Ocean Hall does not impose on its visitors a course to follow. Gone are the natural history museum’s long, linear rows of cases. Indeed, it’s difficult to find a right angle, or even many straight lines, here. Curves dominate, creating the sensation that one is almost drifting through the hall. The exhibit includes 12 distinct sections, we are told, but this fact is clearer on a map than it is on the hall’s floor. Shores to Shallows, with its cross section of a Chesapeake estuary, for example, flows seamlessly into a 1,500-gallon Indo-Pactific coral reef aquarium full of clownfish made popular by Finding Nemo. Turn from a display exploring the ocean’s biodiversity through stuffed, jarred, and illustrated specimens, and you find a touchable model of the ocean floor.

This is not to say that Ocean Hall is a chaotic place. It instead mirrors the complexity of the bodies of water themselves. Earth’s oceans, we are reminded, form a single interconnected body of water. Its species and currents are not constrained by labels such as Atlantic and Pacific, so why should their interpretation? Sections meld seamlessly into one another, but information in each is presented in a constrained manner so that if you do, say, jump from a stuffed penguin in Poles to a preserved Coelacanth (the giant fish considered extinct until a fisherman found one off the coast of South African in 1938), a visitor can still learn or experience at each. With the exception of the Journey Through Time exhibit — which explores the slow march of evolution that began underwater — there is never a progression to follow, no order by which a visitor must read or look. In this way, touring the hall feels a lot like surfing the Web.

But in the Internet age, what else is an institution to do? Indeed, like museums of every type, the Smithsonian must deftly balance the desire to educate with the need to entertain. There’s the hope that knowledge will be accessible, that information will be presented in a way that connects with visitors. In museums today, this traditionally takes the form of interactivity and multimedia elements, used in excess at most institutions but tastefully restrained in Ocean Hall. A spinning digital globe, for example, uses technology to effectively and engagingly show the flow of ocean currents, the development of weather patterns, and the shift in Earth’s plates. Traditional museum elements have their place as well. Tucked into each section are select specimens preserved in jars or stuffed and mounted — throwbacks, to be sure, but still effective at inspiring awe. At the same time, that knowledge must carry a sense of scientific authority. And here, restoration of the hall into an ornamented, two-story cavern itself restores the cognitive power that such stately museum architecture has long suggested.

   “Science on a Sphere”

Perhaps most noteworthy is the care with which science museums must tackle an increasingly tricky issue: evolution. In Ocean Hall the theory is never in doubt, but there does exist a quiet appreciation of the fact that every visitor might not be as confident of his connection with the larger animal world, or even with nature itself. Anticipating possible anthropocentrism on the part of some visitors, a display in the Entrance Experience asks, “How can the ocean affect me?”, while a display on the rise of multicellular organisms asks, “We came from them?” (the emphasis being, in both cases, the Smithsonian’s). Indeed, one of the most interesting elements of the entire hall is a video that explores life in the deep sea. There, animals using chemeosynthesis — the process of deriving energy from chemical sources — suggest to some scientists that life may have begun there, in the absence of sunlight on the cold, dark ocean floor. This video, with its theory of a stark beginning to life, is tucked away discretely in a back corner of the hall.

Funding needs have changed as well, which now must come for a variety of sources. There was, in the case of the Smithsonian, both the need for Congress to kick in for restoration of the hall, as well as for a corporate sponsor like 3M to pony up for preservation fluid. A $15 million private gift will provide approximately $750,000 each year to keep the hall up-to-date. This is particularly important as the information presented in Ocean Hall, like the environment it represents, is by no means static. To the contrary, the hall is a forward-thinking space, as “living” an exhibition as anything but a zoo or botanical garden could be. Fish stocks change. Pollution levels rise and fall. Chronicling the plight of the polar bear, a graph of the declining sea ice capacity begins not a century ago, but in 2008; it charts various models that predict anywhere from a 20 to 40 percent decrease in capacity by 2100. Let’s understand our natural history, this suggests, but at the same time consider our natural future.

“Life is complicated,” as one display aptly states. So, too, is the process of institutionalizing knowledge of it. But evolution, a visit to Ocean Hall makes abundantly clear, is not constrained to the planet’s flora and fauna. It is a give-and-take process that extends to the very institutions that espouse the theory. • 26 September 2008

Jesse Smith is a writer based in Philadelphia.

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