I went to Shedd Aquarium yesterday, but it was hardly my first time there. Mostly I went to see the new Jellies exhibit, which was compact but done well.
I’m not a fan of jellyfish (I’ve been a victim of their sting!) but I do love to watch them. I’m one of those people who would shriek and run away if you tried to get me to touch one on the non-stinging parts, or if I saw one in the water. They are beautiful and interesting creatures, though…I just don’t want to interact with them unless there is a thick pane of glass between us both.
Being the aquarium geek-for-life that I am, I also stopped and looked at every single tank in the general galleries too. As is my wont, I also had my ears open for any interesting dialogue between other aquarium visitors. I’m an insufferable know-it-all when it comes to fish, and I WILL step in with a useful fact or a correction to someone’s ignorance at times. I only do this because aquariums are my passion, and I think fish and other aquatic denizens are utterly fascinating, and love to educate people about just how amazing fish really are. For instance, did you know that the Mexican blind cave tetra (Astyanax mexicanus) is born with functional eyes, but gradually loses them over time as they grow up in the dark caves and cenotes of Mexico? This is because there are two varieties of this species – one that lives in caves, and one that doesn’t. The one that lives in caves starts out just like the one that lives in a normal environment, but loses its eyes because it doesn’t use them. But the two varieties – eyeless and normal – are the exact same species, and can interbreed. Fascinating!
But you know what? There is no sign at the Shedd, next to the tank of Blind Cave tetras, that even mentions this. And that’s what I wanted to write about – how museums can miss out on easy opportunities to educate their visitors. I love the Shedd a lot, but it frustrates me when I see how much empty sign/educational space is being wasted. On each tank, there are two “flanks” of vertical signs, which are used only to identify the creatures within the tank.
Sometimes there are also some signs that run horizontally, which have general information about ecosystems (i.e. “Why we need to save the African Rift Lakes”) that are sometimes only tangentially related to the tank they are beneath. The signage and educational focus seems to be better in the newer exhibits, such as the Amazon Rising tanks or the Wild Reef exhibit. But they have practically squandered the signage in the general galleries (i.e. what you get to see if you only pay general admission). On each of the vertical signs, there are perhaps 6 slots for identification cards – and most of the tanks on average only use up about 2-3 slots per sign – and there are two vertical signs per tank. The rest of the slots are just left empty! Empty! I could (and already have) think of lots of interesting bits of information you could put in those empty sign slots.
To me, it’s an example of how museums – especially in this poor economy – need to find new and innovative ways to present/repackage the collections they already have. Updating or creating signage is so much cheaper, simpler and easier than purchasing “more interesting” items for the collection – it’s about taking a Depression-era philosophy of getting the most use out of what you have. Every item is interesting in some way, and every fish or painting or letter has a story to tell. Being a good steward of the collection is more than just protecting it and keeping it well maintained – it’s about making sure that your visitors CARE about those objects enough to want to make a return visit, or write a good review on Yelp, or donate money, or volunteer, or in some way support your institution.
Whenever I visit the Shedd, I always feel bad for the less “sexy” fish, the alewives, the chubs, the darters, who are quickly passed over for the sexier “Nemos” and seahorses, and the brightly colored reef fish. It’s like the Shedd has all but given up on making these dull-colored fish interesting, even though they ARE interesting because of their behavior, or eating habits, or the origin of their names. In my opinion, it signifies a failure to adhere to the Shedd’s mission of teaching others about aquatic life, and creating a connection between visitors and the collection. I have witnessed so much ignorance about both biology and fish among Shedd visitors – but I can hardly blame the visitors – I’ve seen them peering into the tanks, then looking at the minimally informative signs, and they end up looking more confused than ever before. They come with so many questions, but they are presented with few answers.
Some days I feel like I want to be for aquariums what Neil De Grasse Tyson is to astronomy.
I have an unstoppable desire to educate others about the thing I am passionate about – and I want to get others as excited about aquariums, and biology (and science in general) as I am! When I visit museums (and aquariums, and zoos) I am constantly thinking up new ways to make things better – how can this sign be (re)written, how could we rearrange this case to make it more visually interesting, what is the best story we can tell about this object? It saddens me when I see wasted opportunities for education, for stimulating the imagination and encouraging the scientific mind. That is what is suggested by the empty signs at the Shedd, and at other museums I’ve visited. Fill that space with knowledge, with questions and tell the story to the crowd!