Inside the AMNH’s new ocean exhibit, with 30 very excited fourth graders

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March 9, 2018
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March 9, 2018

I was hoping that previewing a new museum exhibit in the media would mean having the luxury of walking unmolested, without the crowds that make any visit to the museum in New York at Macy's on Black Friday . In contrast, there are dozens of other journalists with tripod cameras and about 30 very excited fourth-grade students.
It's Tuesday morning, and I'm at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan to take a look at a new exhibit called Unseen Oceans. The museum has arranged for fourth graders to be here so the media can take good pictures of children learning interesting things. Like many things that are great for cameras, it is distressing as experience.

A variety of models of fish and turtles that are now known to shine.Photo: AMNH / R. Mickens

The exhibition, which opens to the public on March 12, takes place in six poorly lit circular rooms that are quite small, so it is impossible not to run into other people.
Children look like they're in a candy store, running frantically from one attraction to another, barely paying attention to the plastic posters that throw out information. "I love seahorses, they're so cute!" Screams a girl. She is looking at a cylindrical tank that houses the creatures; called seahorse lined, can shine in red and green. "Come here! This is cooler!" Says another girl, dragging her friend away from the bright fish, to a corner of "meet the scientist." The scientist's corner holds his attention for a second before scurrying away.
The corner of "knowing the scientist" that the children ignore is part of the objective of the exhibition. The circular side rooms and panels are scattered throughout the exhibition to introduce visitors to oceanographic engineers, microbiologists and deep-sea biologists. These scientists invent their own technology to track the sound of whales or pick up sponges from the seabed without hurting them.

Visitors can discover what a biofluorescent fish looks like under different lighting and through the lens of specialized underwater cameras. Photo: AMNH / R. Mickens

New technologies such as rovers and low-light cameras, as shown by the exhibition, allow us to study the oceans as never before. "This is the golden age of marine exploration," says AMNH president Ellen Futter. Diving in the vast blue expanses that cover approximately 70 percent of our planet is "more important than space exploration," says Ray Dalio, the president of the Dalio Foundation that finances the exhibition. From the oxygen we breathe to the food we eat, we depend on healthy oceans. So, the objective of the exhibition, says Dalio, is to create emotion for the greatest influence on the planet: the sea.
In a certain sense, the exhibition seemed to me an interactive American version of Blue Planet II, less the reassuring narration of David Attenborough. Blue Planet II, the BBC's latest documentary on the oceans, also focuses a lot on the state-of-the-art camera technology used to shoot underwater like never before. The exhibition even features BBC images of the series and a replica of a submersible Triton that was used in the series. The sub is there for the photographic shots, and when I passed it, I could see the line of visitors delivering smartphones waiting patiently for their turn to take the perfect selfie in the yellow Triton #UnseenOceans.

The plankton room.Photo: AMNH / R. Mickens

The plankton room, the marine tramps that are at the end of the food chain, is the most striking. These creatures are usually too small to see with the naked eye. But here, the extended models – some bright blue and green on my head – show some of them with terrifying details. A carnivorous zooplankton resembles a spider lobster with the bulbous head of an ant. Or as Michael Novacek, the curator of paleontology at AMNH, whispers: "It looks like an alien!"
While I am absorbed in the plankton, the children – the real objective audience of the museum – are delayed more in the interactive screens. One is a "kinetic sand table" in which six girls dipped their hands in wet sand creating canyons and mountains "underwater" ("It's so fun! You have to try it"); the other is a video game that allows them to pilot a submersible and collect specimens.

Children pilot a submersible and collect specimens.Photo: AMNH / D. Finnin

When I leave the exhibition, I am almost blinded by the bright lights of the gift shop. It's a relief to be in a less crowded place, even one that sells "Whale hello there" shirts and huge blue and purple jellyfish pillows. As my eyes adjust to the light, I wonder what part of the information given in the exhibition, including the way climate change is changing our oceans, will stay with the fourth grade students. Will you remember that the sea is acidifying due to our carbon emissions? Or will they just remember how cool the kinetic sand table was? How do you get people excited about exploring the oceans (if you're not Elon Musk)?
Then, the answer comes to me. After previewing the exhibition, they lead us to (still another busy) tour behind the scenes of the museum's marine invertebrate and fish collections. Here, there is a huge bucket filled with 75 percent yellow alcohol and the corpse of a giant squid caught in New Zealand in 1997. Like Mark Siddall, curator of the Annelida and Mollusca collections, he opens the tank with the help of others, warns to take a step back When the lid comes off, the smell floats through the room: it smells like a thrift store soaked in vodka.

AMNH's scientific staff processes the giant squid specimen upon arrival at the museum in 1998. Photo: AMNH / P.Rollins

Now, put that decrepit giant squid in an exhibition about the oceans, and I guarantee you will stay with the people forever. They will remember what they saw, or they smelled it. "It smells like calamari martini," exclaims Siddall.
That's not something you see in Blue Planet II.


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