Monday, November 17, 2008

Sant Ocean Hall

The Sant Ocean Hall at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC is a new permanent exhibition that includes some nifty features plus a subtle conservation message that should entertain and inform children and adults alike. Although perhaps not as exciting to visitors as an aquarium, the Hall has many attractions. The children in the hall during my visit seemed delightfully engaged, crowding around the tank of colorful, live tropical fish (I believe the exhibit's only live animals) and raising what can only be described as a cheerful cacophony as they excitedly pointed out interesting fish. Certainly some credit must be due to the museum for creating an environment that stimulates even those too young to read numerous captions and explanations. To overcome the possibility of boring some visitors with too many dead things in glass cases, the exhibit has numerous elements to enliven the material: a life-size replica of an actual, living North Atlantic right whale, Phoenix; a video about global ocean systems projected onto a globe-shaped, 3D screen (a nifty piece of technology); large flat video screens all around the top of the hall showing a variety of ocean scenery; drawers and magnifications at the eye level of younger visitors; and individual stations highlighting different kinds of ocean habitat.

The scientific information in the exhibit is fairly comprehensive and informative, highlighting key types of habitat - deep ocean, polar oceans, coral reefs - and explaining their significance. There are conservation plugs and warnings about environmental degradation sprinkled throughout, but perhaps without the tone of dire urgency that many of us in the environmental community feel. This is of course to be expected at a museum, but nevertheless there were missed opportunities. For example, in the Polar Oceans section, the role of krill in the Antarctic food web was properly emphasized, but the consequences of their increasing commercial exploitation were not explored. The Sant Ocean Hall is worth a visit, however, and one hopes that visitors will absorb the lesson that it hopes to instill - humanity depends on the ocean too much to ignore its health.

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