Our Evolution

Summer 2021

  • News

By John Racanelli

In response to the National Aquarium's grand opening in August 1981, the New York Times referred to our soaring Pier 3 structure as "seven stories of the latest in aquarium technology," but since its earliest incarnation, this amazing place has always been more than simply a building full of fish. Our archives tell us that, from the Aquarium's inception in 1977, our stated purpose was

to dramatize "the ways in which water weaves together the strands of life's webs" to "generate new appreciation of the interrelatedness of all living things and their common dependence on the environment."

Shortly after the National Aquarium's opening splash, I joined a small team focused on opening the Monterey Bay Aquarium. As California's response to the Baltimore renaissance, we could only hope that some of the success realized here would rub off on us. In a very short time, the National Aquarium had created a new best-in-class model—and it was the envy of every waterfront city in America.

Over the next three decades as I watched the National Aquarium from afar, something that always impressed me was its incredibly close connection to the community. This was hardly surprising. Unlike most new aquariums during that gilded 'age of aquaria,' the National Aquarium was the people's aquarium, funded not by a billionaire benefactor, but the grit and determination of a can-do city and its taxpayers. Compounding that, it was the jewel in the crown of an audacious waterfront redevelopment—the Inner Harbor—that was itself a standard bearer for urban renewal worldwide.

Beginning with my first tour of the National Aquarium in 1984—which I unexpectedly shared with a sequined VIP named Liberace—I sensed that fate was leading me here to this remarkable city, where I've now had the good fortune to spend some of my most fulfilling years. The philosophical alignment between the Aquarium's mission and my own—to share the beauty and importance of the ocean with others, and in doing so, inspire them to preserve and protect it—is undeniable. It was hardly a leap of faith to bring those visions together. In truth, the National Aquarium and I have been on a parallel path for every one of these past 40 years.

Above all, what's made my time here most memorable has been the willingness of the Aquarium's people—its staff, board, volunteers, donors and members—to embrace the inevitable change that drives our world today. One of the Aquarium's five core values is innovation, which we interpret as:

"Be original, challenge norms, take chances."

In other words, we work to act fearlessly in the face of life's inherent unpredictability. This principle helped me enormously as we navigated the continuous, pervasive and sometimes dizzying changes the COVID-19 pandemic brought about, and I know it will continue to shape us as we emerge into a more hopeful future.

What excites me most about our next 40 years is the opportunity to spend every day working to change the way humanity cares for our ocean planet, which we surely must do for our own sake and that of every species on earth. We will approach this challenge head on at the National Aquarium. For example, by creating the world's first dolphin sanctuary, we will forever change the way humans interact with dolphins—evolving from mere keepers to caregivers and stewards. That movement is already well underway.

2 Aquarium Employees Performing Maintenance on the Floating Wetland Prototype
Aquarium staff work to maintain our floating wetland prototype which is successfully bringing the natural world back into the Inner Harbor and helping us reimagine urban waterways.

By designing and installing a network of floating wetlands right here in the Inner Harbor, we will create a new concept for improving the health of urban waterways everywhere, the viability of life for the animals that live in these waters and the wellbeing of humans who find peace and renewal along their shores.

By re-thinking the role of an aquarium in a city that's proud of its grit and history, its rich diversity and its tenacious embrace of social justice, we are changing lives through conservation education, environmental action, community pride and the audacity to believe in a better future. To me, that's the true role of this Aquarium that has always belonged to the people of Baltimore and Maryland.

For my part, I'm inspired by the words of writer and longshoreman Eric Hoffer:

"In times of drastic change, it is the learners who inherit the future. The learned usually find themselves equipped to live in a world that no longer exists."

I've lived my live as a learner, and I'm grateful to be surrounded by a community of like-minded people.

Looking ahead a few decades, I see two things very clearly: lots of hard work and an exciting pathway toward a better future. This challenge energizes me, and I can't wait to get on with it. As my dive buddies and I often say, "Onward, downward!"

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Support the National Aquarium Together, we can change the way humanity cares for our ocean planet.