Museum Review: NY Aquarium
I went to the NY Aquarium this past labor day weekend. A friend visited with me who has gone about 8 times in the past year and always sees the sea lion show. Every time. So I knew it must be good. I was a bit surprised to be greeted by a very tall dinosaur statue. There was no sign, and no other mention of dinosaurs in the park which I encountered. But kids like dinosaurs, I guess.
We started in the main fish house but it was too crowded, so we decided to come back later. We caught a small bit of the penguin feeding Q&A, but despite the zookeeper projecting their voice, it was difficult to hear because of the crowd and the distance, which is a good indicator of the popularity of the penguins. One thing I was able to catch was that the Penguin named Dracula is on the instagram account. I love when museums and zoos and aquaria use social media to promote and continue engagement with visitors outside of the walls of the institution.
After that we waited in line for the new Sharks exhibit. The first room, a tunnel with sharks swimming above was awe inspiring. I have been in a similar tunnel at other aquariums but the glass was lit or scratched in such a way as you really saw the shape of the tunnel clearly. This was not the case at NY Aquarium. It felt like you were underwater, with a clear view. Towards the end of the tunnel, there was a crawl through space, but when we observed people going through they did not look out or up, but focused on the glass under their hands and knees. I wonder if the exhibit was designed for viewers to look up? If I were to go through I’d want to lie on my back for a few minutes.
At this point the picture window style experience shifted into a text-heavy education-centered style of gallery. Large format, illuminated titles in the gallery read things like, “Healthy oceans need sharks” and “Sharks have been around for millions of years, but now their future is in doubt.” (Perhaps the dinosaur at the front needs an ancient shark companion).
Then we walked through an area learning about the life cycle of the shark, with a few touch features on the information boards, and the walls decorated as though we were in a shipwreck. I really liked the shipwreck setting, it was dramatic, introduced the concepts of human impact, and created a nice visual contrast from the other rooms. Also you could hypnotize yourself by looking up at circling sharks on the ceiling.
After that we found ourselves in a large panorama room with a wall of glass. This was a nice view, with some seats, but also crowded. After this third room… there was an interesting space.
Short hallway led to a clearly marked bathroom on the right
4 video interactive “shops” like a restaurant, a newspaper stand, hologram trash floating in the shark tank etc.
A pocket gift shop which sized about 4X6 feet.
A split level floor with a dividing railing.
It was a lot crammed into a small, echoing space. It almost felt like the exhibits were supposed to have their own gallery but got pushed into this closing area at the last minute.
After the sharks we looked at the sleeping sea turtles and the circling shoal of fish in the tank next to a children’s theater area. There was a lot more sound than I typically associate with an aquarium. In fact I started to worry that the fish would be stressed by it. In addition to screaming children who sometimes banged on the glass while their parents chuckled, there was music for the children’s show, music for the sea lion show, and some kind of house style music blasting from the outside of the entrance to the aquarium which would be heard 2 blocks and across the parking lot, as you got off the subway train. If travelling to the NY Aquarium with noise sensitivity, I recommend high quality noise cancelling headphones and a planned location within the complex for breaks.
After Hurricane Sandy, the NY Aquarium suffered great losses to its collection of animals and its buildings so the rebuild was delayed and much focus has been on storm-proofing and life support for the animals. The Shark experience seems to be the newest open building and it does not disappoint. The roof has a wall of tiles that shimmer in the wind which was quite mesmerizing to look at.
The Sea Lion show was a must see. We lined up early, and though some families felt the need to cut the line, we were still able to get center front seats on the bleachers. I was a bit bemused by the music choices as we waited for the show to begin, featuring songs from “Moana,” “Little Shop of Horrors,” and “we will Rock You.” During this song the crowd started stomping and clapping along with the rhythm, which again raised my concern for the sensitivity and hearing of the animal performers, but bonded the crowd I suppose and made the show seem very exciting for those who might associate that ritual with a sports game.
First out was a juveline, named Townsend. Townsend was rescued because he stranded, was rehabilitated, and then stranded again, this time found sleeping under a car in San Francisco. After that “ the government deemed him non releasable so he could educate you and be an ambassador.” I loved how the speech continued: “Why Stranding? It all comes down directly to human impacts. The sea waters are warming and fish go deeper into the ocean, so sea lion moms go deeper into the ocean to feed themselves and their young. Also deeper in the ocean are predators, but if we all do small things at home we can make a change”
This idea was followed through with a joke from the next sea lion, Kenobi, who dived for a plastic water bottle, looked guilty for “bringing trash” to the aquarium, and then tapped the recycle bin as the trainer was about to throw the plastic into the trash can. After a few more cute tricks with Kenobi, an even larger sea lion came up to do a very smooth dance routine with the trainer who was speaking for most of the show. Then that sea lion was joined by a very small one and there was a speech about how we should all stand up for wildlife. Very heartwarming. I hope the message impacted the adults as well as the kids who came to see it.
We Stand for Wildlife
After that we took a quick look through the first building with the fish and saw an interesting info board about buying fish to save trees in Brazil. It made me wonder how recent the exhibit sign was and also made me wonder how often people actually read the exhibits. From our experience on the busy day it was very difficult to try to read anything with children and adults pressing up against the glass and leaning over the text, and some of the kids playing with the screens showing the variety of fish to the point of some of the screens breaking. I also noticed a lot of people taking flash photos in the shark exhibit, which seemed idiotic considering the glare that would result in the photos because of the glass tanks. At many children’s museums, rules are explicitly stated and reinforced. An aquarium or zoo setting could also be a great place to start laying the foundations for visitor expectations around animals and with each other. Perhaps when checking in to get a ticket or show your member pass, there could be an informational video about keeping the animals and ourselves safe? I have seen explanatory context and safety videos work well in submarine exhibits and disneyland alike.
Would I recommend for an autistic visitor? Well, I think I would have to go back on a calmer day. But in April of this year (2019) they hosted “Aquarium Mornings with the Animals” for the price of $32 https://www.nymetroparents.com/event/New-York-Aquarium-2019-04-28-2019-04-28
Here is the event description: “Bring your family to enjoy early access to the aquarium with fun activities and a private visit to one of our exhibits. Create, play, and move together to learn more about the aquarium’s animals. We’ll finish with a live animal encounter with one of our aquatic invertebrates!” so it is unclear if the program is intended to be inclusive or not. https://tickets.wcs.org/mainstore.asp?vid=12.
The “accessibility statement” on the website is about the website’s accessibility. The “park accessibility” link brings you to a page that shows which exhibits have low lighting or wheelchair access, accessible restroom location and their service animal policy.
I would recommend calling the aquarium to ask about autism programs.