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New York Aquarium

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Oldest continually operating aquarium in the United States

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Written by Anna Kwiatkowska

As I took my first step into a strange new world filled with alien creatures, I hardly could contain my excitement. I found myself holding my breath as I walked into the semi-dark space, with the only light source emanating from above and entering strange glass boxes I had never seen before. I clasped my grandfather’s warm hand. It guided me as I walked through these glowing portals that transported me to a submarine chamber of wonder. I peered with curiosity at these deep blue canvases interrupted with kaleidoscopic splotches of vibrant, bright color flickering in what seemed to be graceful harmony before my eyes. I reached out into the magical abyss instinctively, my sweaty palm meeting the cold glass, as crystal-like jellyfish danced enchantingly, intermingled with their own scattered shadows. Their silent presence echoed with infinite mysteries of the ocean, inviting my childhood self to a beautiful journey of discovery that I will cherish forever.

My grandfather took me to my first visit to the New York Aquarium. Located in Coney Island, it is the oldest, continually operating aquarium in the United States. In my youth I saw the aquarium as a magical underwater garden of colorful corals. As I walked in, I was startled when I suddenly found my small body engulfed in the deep darkness of the interior space. I tensed up and felt a great wave of relief as I heard my grandfather’s comforting voice reading aloud the names and descriptions of the fish displayed. As we walked along, the glowing tanks lighted our way in the darkness. Soon all my fears went away and I was enchanted by all the mysterious fish that I had never before heard about. “Wow Grandpa, what is the name of the long yellow squiggly one?” I would ask as I tugged on my grandfather’s sleeve in excitement. I did not want the visit to end because I knew that the next day it was the end of my grandfather’s visit, and he to go back home to Poland.

In the late nineteenth-century, marine life was little understood; for many, the ocean was a deep and vast unknown, full of scary monsters. Adolf Glassbrenner, author of an 1869 children’s book entitled Journey in the Ocean: An Aquarium for the Young and Inquisitive, illustrated his volumes sea creatures as dark, mysterious, and awe-inducing. Glassbrenner depicted ocean life as mythical characters in a science-fiction comic instead of real animals. His illustrated monsters glowed in the dark and seemed to waltz swiftly in the water. Adults and children alike found great excitement in visiting aquariums, which satisfied the many questions they had about the ocean – the myth becoming real life right in front of their eyes; speculations about could finally be answered. Aquaria were the only places in the United States that allowed for the study of marine animal development during the winter months. As such, they afforded New Yorks naturalists with rare opportunities — two million people visited the Coney Island institution annually to see the many northern marine forms that had not previously been exhibited alive.

The first aquarium, The London Fish House, was opened to the public in 1853. It was made up of small boxes made of glass that were placed on top of high wooden tables. People were able to walk through these boxes and peek inside the display. The London exhibit catered mainly to adults who, thanks to contemporaneous scientific discoveries, were just beginning to uncover the oceans secrets. Since the tanks were placed on tall tables, the displays were uncomfortable for children to view easily. A child needed a prop to step on in order to see the same thing the adult was able to see. While children were eager to learn and engage with the discoveries, the environment created did not cater to their needs and their way of gaining knowledge.

Due to rapid advancements in new technology, information about the ocean and aquatic forms of life became readily available through books, films, and the Internet. Today, if someone wonders about the life of a crab, starfish, snail, or a jellyfish, they can easily go on Google or Youtube, and the information (as well as misinformation) is displayed right in their living rooms. The wonderful and reliably educational experience of walking through an aquarium began to be taken for granted. As we are increasingly inundated with digital images and sound bites, the general public have become less interested in aquaria. Tactics had to be changed in order to keep their doors open and visitors coming. One major change was creating displays that catered to children, such as in the displays in the New York Aquarium.

Opened in 1896, the New York Aquarium, like its peers, geared exhibitions towards adult audiences. Even in a photograph taken as late as 1963, we see that a tank is placed well above the waist of an adult man. From this image we understand that children were not yet considered significant aquarium clients. However, in 2012, Super Storm Sandy flooded and nearly destroyed most of the New York Aquarium. Luckily, ninety percent of its animals were saved, and the institution, eager to rebuild its space and audience, reopened in 2013. In the process, the aquarium underwent a sea change — the new installations at the were made with a childs scale in mind. Tanks ledges were designed to be very low (below an adult’s knee), thereby enabling children to easily observe the fish swimming around inside. Information panels were placed low enough to stay at a childs eye-level. If a tank was placed too high, the display was then accompanied with a ledge that a child could easily step on to be able to reach.

Children can now pull levers that “pop” facts about the displays, while interactive sculptures encourage children to climb and explore the aquatic forms of life. The New York Aquarium renovated itself as a place where a child was thought of and catered to. While having access to the every nook and cranny of the exciting underwater world, a child not only lets his or her imagination run wild, but also learns important educational facts about wildlife.

The New York Aquarium’s mission is to save wildlife through science conservation, action, and education, but it also aims to inspire people to value nature. Its special exhibits, public events, and research help to raise awareness about issues facing the ocean and its inhabitants. Just as important, it brings different generations of families together. Today, when an adult wanders into the New York Aquarium, they find themselves outsiders in a space designed for child exploration. “Grown ups” find themselves alongside their children, bending down to read the information provided — physically engaging in exploration, as well as just simply spending quality bonding time, an experience nearly as rare as sitings of the oceans wonders. (May 2016)


Anna Kwiatkowska, Nomiated through Dr. Marta Gutmans Children and the City course, Spitzer School of Architecture, City College of New York, Spring 2016

The New York Aquarium harbors memories of family, tradition, and our transmission of values. It reminds me of the times when I bonded with my relatives, especially my grandfather. Now that he is gone I miss him greatly. Yet what has stayed with me was the reminder of the experiences we shared that manifested into a physical space – the space that we explored together. Whenever I visit the New York Aquarium, I experience the familiar feeling of warmth as if I was a child again, searching for my grandfather’s hand to guide me. As I have grown and faced the hardships of adulthood, I still search for that reassuring guidance. The memories of my grandfather and the feeling of comfort that I experience when I visit the New York Aquarium are timeless and irreplaceable.

The New York Aquarium not only educates young people about the environment and provides great entertainment but it also gives an even more long lasting gift. It provides children with something they can hold on to and cherish forever. It provides something that cannot be tarnished and withstands the test of time- a memory. They associate the experience of this place of discovery with the time they got to spent bonding with their friends, loved ones, or in my case – my grandfather.

(May 2016)

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