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More people have been to outer space than have been to the depths of the ocean, leaving it largely unknown and unexplored. The Smithsonian will help change that with the opening of the Sant Ocean Hall on Sept. 27 at the National Museum of Natural History. The combination of 674 marine specimens and models, high-definition video experiences, one-of-a kind exhibits and the newest technology allows visitors to explore the ocean’s past, present and future as never before.
The volume of the ocean is huge—71 percent of Earth’s surface. It is also singular; the ocean is one vast interconnected body of water—a global ecosystem that is essential to all life.
The hall is named for Roger and Vicki Sant, Washington philanthropists and Smithsonian supporters, who donated $15 million to support the new hall and related programs and outreach activities. They donated an additional $10 million in 2005 to establish the Sant Chair for Marine Science—the museum’s first endowed chair in ocean research. The Sants are now the largest donors to the museum.
The Sant Ocean Hall was created in partnership with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to show the ocean’s history and its importance in contemporary society. It is the only exhibition in the country devoted exclusively to a global view of the ocean.
Seven-foot-tall prehistoric shark jaws, a 24-foot-long giant squid suspended in a fluid-filled tank and a model of a 45-foot-long North Atlantic right whale hanging overhead are some of the first things visitors will see as they enter the 23,000-square-foot hall. Visitors will be virtually immersed in a unique underwater experience by “Ocean Odyssey,” a high-definition film by renowned underwater cinematographer Feodor Pitcairn of the underwater world, which will be shown on the walls above the exhibit space. And, like the real ocean, the deeper visitors explore the more they will discover—from the sunlit surface to the darkest depths, from the smallest microorganisms to the biggest animals ever known. They will learn about the ocean through the perspective of an astronaut hovering 22,000 miles above the planet as well as that of a seal diving deep below the surface.
“The ocean is a vast ecosystem crucial to our existence, yet scientific and public understanding of the ocean is still limited,” said Cristián Samper, director of the museum. “That’s why the new Sant 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 the Sant 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 hall and that should resonate through our lives as well.”
The North Atlantic right whale model hanging from the hall’s ceiling is an exact replica of “Phoenix,” a living female whale. 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 Sant Ocean Hall, is accompanied by an exhibit about the evolution 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. There are 10 other sections in the hall that address a variety of ocean-related topics, including the deep ocean, coral reefs, the North and South Poles and current ocean research. The Coral Reef section has a 1,500-gallon tank featuring an Indo-Pacific reef with about 74 live specimens. The hall’s “Journey through Time” section looks into the past with fossils of a large number of ancient animals; some are more than 500 million years old, and 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.
There are many strange and wonderful animals in the Sant Ocean Hall, but perhaps none as mysterious as the giant squid, an animal no one had ever seen alive until a few years ago. The museum now has two giant squids 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.
The hall also is the only place in the world to exhibit both an adult coelacanth (SEE-la-kanth) and its pup. This prehistoric fish was thought to have gone extinct 65 million years ago, until a fisherman caught one off the coast of South Africa in 1938.
The Ocean and Humans
The Sant Ocean Hall, unlike many traditional exhibition halls, is not just about looking at objects and reading signs. Visitors will play an active role in it. The hall’s “Living on an Ocean Planet” gallery will inspire visitors to make the connection between the ocean and their daily lives. There are more than 30 “Human Connection” stories told throughout the hall, highlighting the intricate and sometimes delicate interrelationship between humans and the ocean. Visitors will learn this firsthand by putting themselves in the place of an industrial fisherman, a lawmaker or a scientist in interactive exhibits, making important decisions and seeing the ramifications of those choices.
One of the highlighted ocean and human relationships is that of Native Americans—symbolized by a 26-foot carved canoe given to the hall by the Tlingit (KLING-ket) Nation. The northwest Pacific Coast became the most heavily populated Native American region because of the reliable bounty of the ocean resources. Special exhibits enable visitors to learn about the canoe’s construction and its significance, as well as many ocean-related crafts and ceremonies.
Telling the Story with Technology
The Sant Ocean Hall also is greatly enhanced by technological components, information and images that cannot be found on the Internet. “Science on a Sphere” is a room-sized, 360-degree global display system created by researchers at NOAA using 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.
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. Visitors to the hall will not only learn hundreds of new things about the ocean and its inhabitants, but also get the back story to these facts at the “How Do We Know What We Know” stations that are placed throughout the exhibition. These interpretive areas will help people see that our understanding and appreciation of the ocean is due to science and research.
The total cost of the project was $49 million. Of this amount, $21 million was provided by a federal appropriation for the renovation of the hall. In addition to Roger and Vicki Sant’s donation of $15 million, the project was also funded through generous contributions from dozens of individuals and corporations, including NOAA, 3M Corporation, Ocean Conservancy, Guenther and Siewchin Yong Sommer, Sony Electronics Inc. and The Summit Fund of Washington.
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