An Update from the CEO: Our Future

Published May 14, 2014

by John Racanelli, Chief Executive Officer

As part of our supportive online community, I want you to be among the first to hear about an ambitious and far-reaching project now underway here called BLUEprint, which we have undertaken to design a robust future for the National Aquarium.

As you know, we are at our core a conservation organization that operates one of the nation’s leading aquariums in pursuit of our mission to inspire conservation of the world’s aquatic treasures. This mission drives the work of our Board, staff, and volunteers, yet we know we must evolve to remain relevant. Through BLUEprint, we are probing the foundation of what it means to be a world-class aquarium, both now and in the decades to come.

We have partnered in this effort with exceptionally talented professionals, led by MacArthur Fellow Jeanne Gang and her world-renowned design and architecture studio, Studio Gang Architects. In addition to creating transformative architecture, Studio Gang employs the tools, methods, and visionary capability of design to catalyze positive change through public engagement and advocacy. We believe their emphasis on work informed by cultural and environmental trends syncs precisely with our design and planning needs.

Here’s a brief overview of the four pillars we are currently exploring in this groundbreaking effort:

I. The future of aquariums worldwide

In the 33 years since the era of modern aquariums began here in Baltimore, we have made quantum leaps in terms of the care we offer our animals, the science that informs our work, and the evolving role of aquariums in the nation and world. We have touched the lives of 50 million guests, many of them students who have grown up with this valuable community resource.

We have also experienced a significant evolution in the audience we serve: it has become younger, more concerned about the health of our planet, and less willing to simply accept the same way of doing things. Our audience of the next 33 years recognizes the urgent need to protect the health of oceans and aquatic habitats worldwide, and we believe we have an obligation to help them learn how they can be a part of the solution.

This has, in part, driven our transformation from an aquarium attraction with a nascent conservation program to a nationally recognized conservation organization that operates a world-class aquarium to carry out its mission. A key part of the BLUEprint inquiry is to identify the core elements of this desired future state and map out the steps it will take to attain it.

II. Reimagining the National Aquarium experience

When it opened, the National Aquarium set a new standard for aquariums, telling a compelling story through its exhibits, creating drama, and evoking powerful messages about the world of water. As it has evolved, the facility has become more diffuse, with three very different exhibit experiences: Australia: Wild Extremes in the Glass Pavilion, the dolphin amphitheater on Pier 4, and the original exhibits on Pier 3. Separated by water and differing exhibit approaches, these experiences have been challenging to unify. This is the central work of the BLUEprint: to weave these exciting but disparate parts together to tell a powerful story of aquatic conservation.

Some of the ideas now in the concept stage include:

  • A “perched wetland” in the slip between our piers to depict the Chesapeake Bay watershed’s quintessential habitats while demonstrating what a healthy, thriving urban waterfront might be
  • A new gallery of exhibits focused on the nation’s 13 marine sanctuaries, which range from Massachusetts to American Samoa in the mid-Pacific
  • A more cohesive visitor pathway
  • Public access to back-of-house zones traditionally off-exhibit, such as our animal care center, animal rescue facilities, veterinary lab, and food preparation space
  • A fresh approach that could make the bridge between our piers an exhibit experience unto itself.

Among others, these concepts are now being tested in the marketplace by our predictive analytics firm IMPACTS for efficacy and feasibility. Our objective is to reimagine the National Aquarium experience and implement those changes over the next 10 years.

III. Designing a new role in the nation’s capital

As you may know, we operated the original National Aquarium in the Department of Commerce Building in Washington, DC, from 2003 until last fall, when it was closed to make way for the U.S. General Services Administration’s $1 billion renovation of its 1930s-era building. At that time, we pledged to find a way to continue the National Aquarium’s presence in the capital, and since then, two compelling ideas have emerged.

The “ocean embassy” idea envisions a program spearheaded by the National Aquarium to bring together ocean advocates, aquarium leaders, and policymakers to perform for the ocean what embassies do for nations: debate issues, promote mutual welfare, negotiate disputes, and represent the interests of their constituents. As a matter of fact, the open ocean comprises 43 percent of the planet, yet it is ungoverned. We believe that such critical ecosystems need an embassy, and our partners at Studio Gang are investigating possible approaches for the idea.

We are also exploring potential collaborations with our colleagues at the Smithsonian Institution; discussions continue and we are optimistic about future partnerships.

IV. The future of dolphins at the National Aquarium

As we develop, evaluate, and refine our plans, our highest priority is to ensure the health and well-being of the animals in our care.

To that end, with a heightened understanding of the emerging science and an intimate knowledge of the eight dolphins in our care, we are studying and evaluating all possible options for providing them with the best possible living environment in the years ahead.

In fact, we began this evolution two years ago with the introduction of Dolphin Discovery, a new interpretive approach to exhibiting our dolphin colony. There are no longer scheduled shows, and guests can come and go from the amphitheater as they please. Now, guests are invited to engage in one-on-one conversations with the biologists who care for the animals, and interaction sessions focus on natural behaviors as an analog for the dolphins’ lives in the wild. These efforts have already garnered us recognition as an innovative leader among aquariums worldwide.

Our next step is to evaluate the most beneficial options for our aging animals, like 42-year-old Nani, who has been with us since the opening of our current dolphin pavilion. There are many issues to consider when planning for the future of these social, cognitively advanced mammals.

Later this month, we will host a summit to convene animal care experts, veterinarians, and biologists to determine the feasibility of a variety of potential solutions, including designing and building a dolphin sanctuary in an ocean-side setting and exploring in detail the requirements for operating such a facility. We will pursue our exploration and address this need with our highest priority in clear view: to ensure the continued health and well-being of our dolphin colony.

Though we have achieved much over our first decades, we are not resting on our laurels. To the contrary, we are embracing these changes enthusiastically as we design a future that will ensure we remain relevant to audiences of tomorrow.

We are pleased to report that even at this early phase of our work, we have caught the attention of The New Yorker magazine, whose May 19 “Innovators Issue” features a story on Jeanne Gang and highlights our BLUEprint project.

Since its beginnings, the National Aquarium has been a proud partner in Baltimore’s renaissance and the Inner Harbor’s rebirth. The reputation we have worked hard to build over these years has earned us the distinction of being one of Maryland’s leading attractions, with a well-documented, positive economic impact on the city and the state.

We take this role seriously. We know it is only possible thanks to the dedication and generosity of our family of supporters, and we thank you for your commitment to our work. We plan to continue to share this journey with you and invite your feedback as our plans evolve.

To sign up for email updates on BLUEprint and to offer feedback and questions, please visit aqua.org/future.

Together, we will attain our vision to change the way humanity views and cares for the ocean. After all, it’s what gives us life.

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John Racanelli

Chief Executive Officer

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