The Monterey Bay Aquarium is one of the real jewels in the Bay Area’s cultural/educational crown. My wife and daughter-the-middle-school-math-and-science-teacher and I spent the day there, revisiting a place we knew well when the kids were younger. It seemed that Cannery Row has become at least thirty percent more schlocky and touristy over the last decade, but this is not necessarily a bad thing: I loved Coney Island back in the day and there’s a place in the world for penny-squashing machines.
This aquarium is distinguished by an emphasis, going back to its founding, on the biology of the Monterey Bay region: it has coral reef displays and some exotic critters from far away, but the big installations are local (kelp forest, sea otters, tidepool environments, and the like). There’s a tank of jellies (what we used to call jellyfish) that is so hypnotic and relaxing I wasn’t sure I could walk back to the car after sitting in front of it, and a big new section on seahorses. Go there, it’s wonderful. But the visit on the whole made me sad, for three main reasons.
Right at the door: admission is $30 for adults and $18 for kids (organized school groups are free, and there are the usual quantity-discount memberships). This has two bad effects. First, it’s just a very expensive family educational experience, pretty much excluding anyone below the upper middle class and excluding lots of people who should see this stuff. Second, as the aquarium is obviously challenged to cover its costs, it creates an incentive to attract bodies however possible (is selling itself as a party venue a good way for aquarium management to spend its time?) [UPDATE: more on this here]. Some practice responding to this pressure for attendance is unexceptionable; almost every sign and label was in English and Spanish, both languages the same size. But (granted, this was on a nice summer Sunday) it was something of a challenge to get close enough to the displays to really see them because of the crowd. And some of the developments in exhibit design are not positive, like the idea of playing mood Muzak in the exhibition areas. Which leads me to:
The scientific content of the displays, especially the labels, was dumbed down dramatically from what it used to be, and further from what I came to expect in a science museum roaming the American Museum of Natural History as a child. I went from tank to tank, read everything on the very large-type labels, but could rarely find out where the creature inside lived in the world, whom it eats, who eats it, or whom it’s related to. I learned the octopus is super smart as animals go, but not why being smart is especially useful for it. The jellies are a major draw, but I could not find out how the cells around the perimeter of the bell communicate with each other to contract all at the same time, nor how nourishment is transported from the gut to the rest of the animal, nor whether it’s light-aware and if so, by what mechanism. I looked for a book about them in the shop, but the shop is much more about chotchkes (my daughter found a beautiful necklace) and has only a smattering of books; the only one concerning the jellies was a manual about how to keep them in a home aquarium. The result of this radical editing of what a natural history museum or zoo used to make available is to turn the whole aquarium into something more like an entertainment display of weird stuff and less like a really informative enterprise. OK, maybe the web is a better way to make real information available than text labels, but why should I have to wait until I get home, and remember all these questions, rather than having terminals set up right there?
Finally, I was astonished, literally at the point of tears, to see the degree to which almost every exhibit now has to highlight the terrible destruction we have brought to oceans that always seemed too big to damage. Sharks, coral reefs, mammals, turtles, birds (an albatross was introduced to us, and the talk featured a plastic container of at least a pint filled with the plastic, bottle caps, and other trash removed from the stomach of one albatross), you name it: endangered, threatened, dying. How did we get to the point where a balanced presentation of ocean science is mainly about loss, waste, and human misbehavior? What are kids to think about this?