Aquarium surviving by adapting Birthday: The Baltimore institution, which marks its 15th anniversary today, has incorporated the guiding principle of nature itself: evolution.


ON THE THIRD LEVEL of the National Aquarium in Baltimore, all exhibits focus on the subject of "Surviving Through Adaptation."

The fish and invertebrates there convey concepts such as growing, lurking and migrating, but the basic theme is survival.

As sea creatures evolve, visitors learn, they develop characteristics that help them stay alive. Some change skin color to blend with their surroundings. Others develop streamlined shapes that reduce water resistance.

In a sense, that simple biology lesson has become the story of the aquarium itself, as it marks its 15th anniversary today.

Since opening Aug. 8, 1981, the aquarium has grown and evolved in ways that help it survive in the increasingly predatory world of civic tourism.

Its history can be viewed as one long series of physical adaptations, from the addition of the Marine Mammal Pavilion in 1990 to refurbishment of the open ocean and Atlantic coral reef tanks last year.

This summer, visitors may notice that the dining area in the Marine Mammal Pavilion has been expanded with a new skylit seating section that helps brighten the entire space. The gift shop also was enlarged and redesigned.

One of the most successful changes has been the creation of a space on Pier 3 for temporary exhibits, including traveling shows that originated in other aquariums. It took the place of the Habitat Theater, a 50-seat facility that didn't get much use. The first presentation is "Jellies: Phantoms of the Deep," a popular jellyfish exhibit that originated at the New England Aquarium and will be up until early 1998.

The idea of creating a space for traveling exhibits was borrowed from art museums, which frequently mount blockbuster shows and send them to other cities to defray costs.

When Baltimore's aquarium opened, so few aquariums existed around the country that there was no such thing as traveling aquarium exhibits. But as more cities built aquariums in the 1980s and 1990s -- in part because of the success of Baltimore's -- traveling aquarium shows became more feasible to mount. Today, most aquariums are built with spaces for rotating or temporary exhibits.

The $500,000 transformation of the Habitat Theater, like many other recent changes at the aquarium, was overseen by Mark Donovan, senior director for exhibits and design.

As modified, the 1,600-square-foot space is perfect for jellies. Tanks of various sizes and shapes enable visitors to see the jellies from many angles, and dramatic lighting makes them easy to view. The darkness of the room adds to the feeling of immersion. Walking through the space feels like being in a submarine and looking through the portholes to the ocean beyond.

While the space is striking on its own, it also fits well with the rest of the building. Walls were opened up in such a way that the new exhibit space flows right into the next one, and the architectural tone is consistent with the original spaces designed by Cambridge Seven Associates.

Now that they have a temporary exhibit space, directors are exploring plans to install an Amazon riverbank exhibit near the entrance to the rooftop rain forest. They're thinking about moving the Children's Cove touch pool to Pier 4 and upgrading the auditorium on Pier 3.

They're about to open an exhibit on "primitive fishes" -- rarely seen fish that look very similar to the way their ancestors did 70 million years ago.

Besides making the physical changes, aquarium board members and staffers have been adaptive in their mission as well, threading a stronger conservation-oriented message through exhibits and activities.

It seems to be working. While other aquariums have seen attendance fall after the initial opening, Baltimore's is going as strong as ever. Last year it had its highest attendance -- 1.63 million visitors. This summer the aquarium has had two record-breaking days, drawing more than 10,000 visitors on both occasions.

What ultimately becomes clear about these changes is that the aquarium itself is a living organism. Just like the creatures on display inside, it requires constant care and feeding. It can't be left alone. It, too, survives because of its ability to adapt.

For aquarium anniversary events, see today's issue of Live.

Pub Date: 8/08/96

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