I love animals. I feel connected to them and just love being near them. Before we even went inside the Aquarium, I encountered the Atlantic Harbor Seals. I crouched down and a seal came right up to the glass. It floated in front of me and blew bubbles, which made me giggle uncontrollably. This went on for several minutes – the seal and me, just staring at each other and giggling. I made a friend! I would have stayed with that seal all morning, but we had so much more to see. When I visit a museum for fun, there are a few things I keep an eye out for:
- Experience: I love a moment of awe. For me, museums shine because they offer a chance to marvel at the world and what humans created in it. I like to feel immersed in the lifeness-ness of all.
- Alignment: I look for instances where I (as a visitor) see explicit connections to the museum’s mission. Do the exhibits connect to the museum’s intended purpose? Is it an explicit connection, or do visitors need to Sherlock their way to understanding why the museum exists?
- DEAI in action: The arc of museum work is (finally, though not perfectly) bending toward diversity and inclusion. In my work, Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion (DEAI) are among my most important values. Museums are increasingly incorporating these values into their work, and I like to see museums recognized when they get it right.
Moments of Awe
Like my moment with the harbor seal, I experienced most of my “awe” during animal encounters. One of the highlights at NEAQ is the mesmerizing Giant Ocean Tank, a 4-story tank filled with Caribbean fish, sharks, and Myrtle the Green Sea Turtle. When we encountered Myrtle, a lovely educator told us that Myrtle is 90 years old! Watching the fish in the giant tank and Indo-Pacific Coral Reef captivated me; I love the ways they move and their vibrant colors. Throughout my visit, I felt awe as I marveled about how vast and full of life our oceans are. I felt present, transported, calm, and inspired.
When you fall in love with the ocean and its inhabitants, you want to do your part to protect them. The Aquarium’s mission statement reads: The New England Aquarium is a catalyst for global change through public engagement, commitment to marine animal conservation, leadership in education, innovative scientific research, and effective advocacy for vital and vibrant oceans.
Without having to scour through every label, I noticed several messages about sustainability throughout the Aquarium, with particular focus on what visitors can do to help the ocean. The one I found most interesting connected the food NEAQ’s animals eat to sustainable fishing practices and the ocean as a food source for humans. I love how NEAQ demonstrates sustainability as a core value by telling visitors that they choose the animals’ food intentionally. Connecting visitors’ choices to the animals’ diets through sustainable seafood ties the exhibit to the mission. Food for thought–yum!
This is a small example, because I honestly don’t know enough about NEAQ to know how deeply embedded (or not) DEAI values are in NEAQ’s culture. But, as I approached the Indo-Pacific Coral Reef, I did a little double-take when I saw the digital signage: Healthy Communities Rely on Diversity.
I love the double-entendre here! Of course, the statement is literally about the animals in the Coral Reef. But, it also speaks to the larger issue of diversity in our culture–that diverse perspectives create a healthy society.
In this exhibit, NEAQ puts this value into practice by rotating multiple translated versions of the label. I love this approach to multi-lingual exhibits–it’s a little less clunky than side-by-side labels, and allows for more than just two or three languages without taking up too much space. However, I would have liked to see more translations like this throughout the rest of the museum. It strikes me as a little self-aggrandizing that the only multi-lingual exhibit is the one about diversity. (To be fair, there may have been others, but I didn’t notice any other translated exhibits.)
Overall, I had a great time at the Aquarium! It gave me a much-needed break from working at the computer, and the opportunity to reconnect with one of my favorite New England museum experiences from my childhood. I’ve got museums on my mind now–time to go pack for Burlington! See you soon, museum friends!