National Aquarium Washington DC


of an Exhibition

by Emma Lang

Published on February 14, 2010

  • Description:

    The National Aquarium is often forgotten in the plethora of museums and visitor attractions Washington D.C. Tucked away in the basement of the Department of Commerce halfway between the National Museum of American History and the White House it is unpretentious with none of the large scale excitement, grand architecture and fantastical multi-sensory experiences and that has come to be associated with aquariums. The National aquarium’s residents are all small and the majority are piscine in nature residing in tanks each representing a different national marine sanctuary.

    The National Aquarium makes full use of its limited space and clearly put a lot of thought into how best to use technology to stretch the space even further and while not drawing attention away from its living residents. Upon entering the aquarium you are face to face with a large bank of screens together displaying images of underwater sea life. These images transport you into the aquatic world you are now entering. It effectively sets the stage, for the exhibits you will see. As visitors pass through the hall that leads to the galleries a recording of a voice plays providing an audio introductory panel for the museum. Unfortunately the background music on this recording overwhelms the voice so that none of the visitors I observed seemed to notice it, nor did I, until I sat directly below the speakers. The introduction is simple and provides a good background to aquarium’s history as the oldest aquarium in the nation and what is on display.

    On the wall of the hallway are porthole shaped screens that show video of life in a coral reef. These screens are bounded on either side by small tanks of reef fish, one representing coral reefs in the Atlantic Ocean the other coral reefs in the Pacific. The screens allow visitors to get as close to the animals as the tanks do and show creatures not present in the aquarium. For young children these screens were particularly exciting and in my half hour of timed observation the children seemed to be as interested in the screens as in the tanks at either end of the hallway. Adults on the other hand did not as a rule stop and look at the screens and several times hurried along children who were visibly engaged by what they were watching.

    Two major problems existed with this use of video. The screens seemed to be most effective in engaging children yet they were located at a height that was much more easily seen by adults. Many of the children were seen to stand on their tip-toes to see them or asking to lifted by their accompanying adults. Given the overwhelming interest in this age group it would seem worthwhile to lower the screens or add screens at child height. Unlike tanks where there are other major considerations to the level of display, lower screens would easily provide a way to engage children. Child-height screens might also impress on adults the value of their children’s engagement in what they are watching and allow them longer time to view the videos. The other problem with this display is the lack of information. While all of the tanks identify the residents and give a background on where they are from, these screens have none of that information. In this way while they seem effective in engaging children they do little to expand their knowledge, or the knowledge of their adult companions.

    The other uses of technology in the Aquarium were a disappointment. Of the six other screens in the aquarium only two (working together) were an interactive. One of the remaining four was out of order, a second located just outside the main gallery provided a list of donors and listed some of the animals that were on display—though not where in the gallery they were located and the other two in the interactive area just showed slide shows of aquatic life. The two that were paired together to form an interactive were designed so that one was a touch screen at desk height and the other was attached to the wall so that visitors not controlling the touch screen could still participate. The interactive was not fully functional at the time of my visit. From what I could make work I found it to be well thought out and it expanded my knowledge and made me eager to learn more. The interactive is designed to teach about whales from both a basic marine biology perspective and a conservation one. One aspect of the interactive I found to be both educational and a lot of fun was where one could listen to whale call watch what they look like on a spectrogram and then record your own mimic of the sound and see what it looked like. The many comparisons between people and whales that visitors could draw from this and the fun of making a recording made this a truly great interactive. Unfortunately the microphone was broken during my visit.

    I admit I feel bad writing a harsh review of the National Aquarium, given their frequently forgotten status and the difficulty they have competing with larger and better funded aquariums. That said, their limited space and low visitorship make the creative use of technology vital to creating a memorable educational experience. However my disappointment in finding so little of the technology they do have to be functional or working to its full potential was great. Perhaps creating a technology internship open to students who want to work in the field of educational technology would be a cost effective way to not only keep current technology working but develop new ways of integrating technology into the aquarium.

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