Sad day at the aquarium

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?

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

2 thoughts on “Sad day at the aquarium”

  1. I am a fish keeping enthusiast, and I agree to the final point that you have made. The destruction to the oceans huge, we have destroyed the natural habitat of the marine creatures to an irreparable extent. Its makes me sad when I think of these lovely fishes and the other marine inhabitants 🙁

Comments are closed.