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Visitors to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History’s newest and largest exhibition will be met by a set of 7-foot-tall prehistoric shark jaws, a 24-foot-long giant squid suspended in its tank and a model of a 45-foot-long North Atlantic right whale hanging above their heads. There will be no doubt that they have entered the Ocean Hall.
Seventy-one percent of the Earth is covered by water, and 97 percent of that water can be found in one vast, interconnected body of water—the Earth’s ocean. The Ocean Hall offers an exciting opportunity to learn about this large and complex ecosystem, from the deepest depth (equivalent to 22 Washington Monuments) to the microscopic life underfoot at the beach. Through unparalleled collections and state-of-the-art technology, the museum’s goal is to teach people that the ocean is a global ecosystem that is essential to all life.
Located in the museum’s newly restored central hall, this new 23,000-square-foot exhibition is the centerpiece of a new Ocean Initiative launched by the Smithsonian that focuses on bringing international attention to the complexity and importance of the ocean. The Ocean Hall was created in partnership with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and shows the ocean’s history and its importance in contemporary society. Traditional mounted specimens and exhibits are paired with innovative technology, providing as thorough and original an experience as possible.
“The ocean is a vast ecosystem crucial to our existence, yet scientific and public understanding of the ocean is still limited,” said Cristián Samper, Acting Secretary of the Smithsonian. “That is why the new Ocean Hall, the most ambitious renovation in the museum’s history, is so vitally important. It will greatly expand our knowledge of this extraordinary ocean planet we call home.”
“NOAA is proud to partner with the Smithsonian Institution and others to develop Ocean Hall, a premier learning place, filled with ocean science and education,” said NOAA’s Deputy Under Secretary for Oceans and Atmosphere Mary Glakin. “If we hope to understand, manage and protect our largely unknown ocean that we rely on for life itself, we must explore, discover, research, collaborate, educate and call to action. Those are the messages that resonate through this Ocean Hall and that should resonate through our lives as well.”
The 45-foot-long model of a North Atlantic right whale hanging from the hall’s ceiling is an exact replica of “Phoenix,” a female whale in the wild. Phoenix was an ideal candidate for the model because she has been tracked throughout her life and scientists know so much about her. The Phoenix model, a signature piece of the Ocean Hall, is accompanied by an exhibit about the history of whales and their deep open-ocean habitat, as well as their centuries-long connection to humans.
Phoenix holds the central spot in the hall’s “Open Ocean” section. The other 10 sections of the exhibition are as follows:
- Living on an Ocean Planet – The exhibit presents cutting-edge research and critical ocean-related issues and features interactive computer stations.
- Shores to Shallows – This area highlights different kinds of coastal ecosystems around the world and how they are affected by humans.
- The Coral Reef – A 1,500-gallon tank features an Indo-Pacific coral reef with up to 74 live specimens.
- The Poles – The exhibit demonstrates the differences between the North and South poles and how life thrives at both through extreme adaptations.
- Ocean Systems – The Science on a Sphere is a high-tech experience that shows why the ocean’s constant motion and interaction with land and the atmosphere make it a complex global system.
- Journey Through Time – This gallery gives visitors the opportunity to compare fossils of a large number of ancient animals; some are more than 500 million years old.
- Deep Ocean Exploration – The Ocean Explorer Theater takes visitors on a 10-minute virtual manned submersible dive with scientists as they uncover some of the planet’s deepest mysteries.
- Collections – A special showcase displays the world’s largest and most diverse collection of marine specimens and explains how this collection helps scientists make sense of ocean life.
- Ocean in the News – An “Ocean Today” kiosk provides interactive ocean news—giving regular updates on ocean-related topics around the world.
- Changing Exhibit – These ocean-focused exhibits will change approximately every 18 months. The first exhibit, “Going to Sea,” highlights the many reasons people have gone out in the ocean throughout history.
There are many strange and wonderful animals in the Ocean Hall but perhaps none as mysterious as the giant squid. Not seen alive by any human until just a few years ago, two giant squids are displayed in the new hall. The larger of the two is a 24-foot-long female specimen suspended in 1,800 gallons of a special, nontoxic, clear fluid developed by 3M Corporation.
Unlike in traditional exhibition halls, the experience in the Ocean Hall is greatly enhanced by technological components, such as Science on a Sphere. This is a room-sized, 360-degree global display system, created by researchers at NOAA, that uses computers and projectors to display information on a 6-foot-wide sphere. Animated images and narration explain many of the complex aspects of the ocean, such as what the ocean produces, how it changes, and how it interacts and influences the atmosphere.
No matter where visitors are in the Ocean Hall, all they have to do to enjoy the hall’s High Bay Media Experience—a series of 12 Sony projectors transform the hall’s upper walls into windows into the ocean through high-definition underwater footage—is look up. These striking images will surround the hall and virtually immerse visitors in a unique underwater experience.
The Smithsonian has partnered with The History Channel to tell the story of “Where in the World Do We Do Science?” There are seven audio-visual stories introducing the exciting work of marine scientists around the world. A large map and photo essays supplement the video stories with additional stories on cutting-edge marine science.
The Ocean and Humans
The hall’s Living on an Ocean Planet gallery will inspire visitors to make the connection between the ocean and their daily lives through on-site and online educational opportunities. There are also more than 30 “Human Connection” stories told throughout the hall with innovative exhibits and audio-visual components, highlighting the intricate and sometimes delicate interrelationship between humans and the ocean.
The northwest Pacific Coast became the most heavily populated Native American region because of the reliable bounty of salmon. This anthropological display focuses on some of the many salmon-related crafts and ceremonies.
A 26-foot canoe that hangs overhead was carved especially for this exhibit by a Tlingit master carver in partnership with Smithsonian and the Sealaska Heritage Institute. Its log was carefully selected, and its design reflects motifs and symbols of the Tlingit culture. Special exhibits give the chance to learn about the canoe’s construction, its history and its significance.
The Central Hall
The museum opened to the public in stages, beginning in 1910. The new Ocean Hall is located in one of the museum’s three original halls, set behind the rotunda and directly opposite the National Mall. While the space that the Ocean Hall currently occupies originally focused on ethnology (the examination of human cultures around the world) during the 20th century, many alterations were made throughout the years to support exhibits.
The Smithsonian chose Quinn-Evans Architects of Washington, D.C., to manage the renovation. Associated Builders of Hyattsville, Md., executed the renovation of the hall from 2001 to 2007. The goal was to restore the space to its early 20th-century appearance while bringing it up to date with modern exhibit and safety standards.
The museum’s Ocean Hall core team was one of the most diverse interdisciplinary exhibit teams in the museum’s history. Design & Production, an exhibit fabrication firm based in Lorton, Va., partnered with exhibit design firm Gallagher & Associates of Bethesda, Md., to work with the team. The result is the museum’s largest and most diverse exhibition.
The renovation of the hall, the largest renovation in the museum’s 100-year history, was paid for with a $21 million federal appropriation. The Ocean Hall project was funded through generous contributions from dozens of individuals and corporations, including NOAA, Roger and Vicki Sant, 3M Corporation, Ocean Conservancy, Guenther and Siewchin Yong Sommer, Sony Electronics Inc. and The Summit Fund of Washington.
The Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, located at 10th Street and Constitution Avenue N.W. in Washington, D.C., is dedicated to studying and preserving the world’s most extensive collection of natural history specimens and human artifacts. The National Museum of Natural History is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., except Dec. 25. Admission is free. More information about the museum is available at www.mnh.si.edu.