The Shedd Aquarium houses a remarkable creature called an archerfish that spits water 3 feet into the air to knock insects off trees into the water for dinner.
Right now, the archerfish swims in an aquarium with a label displaying its name. That’s it.
But soon, visitors will be able to see the fish actually do its thing — spitting at a tree to dislodge crickets for a meal.
Interactive experiences like this inspire the public to care more about the fish and its habitat, according to Bridget Coughlin, president and CEO of the Shedd Aquarium.
This connection between humans experiencing wild animals and being inspired to conserve is the driving force behind the aquarium’s new $500 million project, an eight-year vision called the Centennial Commitment.
“The commitment is about the empathy gap between humans and nature, and that is one of the underpinnings of our biodiversity crisis,” Coughlin said. “People will not save what they have no connection to.”
Connecting people to nature will involve creating new aquarium galleries along with immersive experiences and programs.
For example, the north gallery, which houses rivers, islands and lakes exhibits, will be renovated into a Caribbean coral reef habitat within a 40-foot glass tunnel. Visitors will feel as if they are part of the reef with sharks, rays and colorful fish.
Renovation and re-imagination of the aquarium galleries and educational facilities will cost roughly half of the $500 million and take four years to complete. Renovations are expected to be finished in 2026, ahead of the organization’s 100th anniversary in 2030.
The remainder will go toward expanding local and far-reaching educational programs. It will also fund new approaches developed by aquarium researchers afield to combat climate change and loss of biodiversity — the world’s two most pressing environmental concerns, Coughlin said.
Funding will come from endowments and corporate and community gifts, with 80% available now for on-site restoration, according to Shedd officials.
The project will create more jobs, especially for women and minorities, and help Chicago grow its economy, aquarium officials said. It will also bring education and hands-on experiences with nature to more Chicagoans, especially those on the South and West sides.
Re-imagined galleries will offer visitors a chance to “truly commune with animals,” Coughlin said.
“Imagine touching a pulse pad and feeling the heartbeat of a live swimming shark, or tasting salt water,” she said. “Visitors will hear, smell, touch, see and taste as they explore the aquatic world.”
Closer to nature
The story of the archerfish is a great example of bringing people closer to nature, Coughlin said.
“Once you showcase that biology and you let visitors be immersed in that story, they care a lot more about the river that archerfish lives in,” she said. “It is a wonderful lesson in physics and trajectory and light refraction of water, and a wonderful story to explain why we cannot clear cut woods next to rivers.”
Peggy Sloan, chief animal operations and officer for the aquarium, said overall the new habitats will be larger and more complex.
For example, stingrays need to glide through water to the bottom and dig in the sand. “We are creating more opportunities for that kind of behavior,” Sloan said.
“Most of the animals we have in the galleries will still be with us after renovation,” she said. “This is about re-imagining this fantastic cohort of animals in a way that brings them closer to people.”
Coughlin added the aquarium’s revitalization will include restoring some of the architectural elements of the nearly 100-year-old building that have been hidden over time.
John G. Shedd, for whom the museum is named, bequeathed $3 million to create the aquarium. Shedd was a philanthropist and president of Marshall Field and Co. The aquarium, which opened in 1930, was designed by the prestigious firm of Graham, Anderson, Probst & White, which created a neoclassical temple of white marble and terra cotta.
Additions through the years kept with the historical features of the building, but over time, the aquarium blocked seven 30-foot windows with walls. They’ll be removed to give visitors “a bright new space to see the vista of Lake Michigan and the Chicago skyline,” Coughlin said.
A new learning area will be installed in that space, bringing education once down in the Shedd’s basement, to a more open area closer to the galleries to increase interaction with marine life. Penguins may even greet visitors on occasion.
The $500 million project is likely one of the largest in the history of Chicago museums.
Despite the pandemic, which closed museums for a long stretch, the time is right for the aquarium to roll out new programs and execute the centennial commitment, Coughlin said.
“While the pandemic started, the climate crisis did not stop,” she said. “We’re living in an increased urbanized society with a growing nature gap. Then you overlay that with the fact that there is social and emotional healing from connecting to nature, which was needed before the pandemic. Now it is tenfold more needed.
“We saw the appetite for the public to come back the moment we felt we could safely reopen,” Coughlin said.
The construction phase of the on-site restoration will create 2,000 jobs, Coughlin said. When completed, its economic impact as visitors come from near and far and stay overnight in hotels will be an estimated $360 million annually, according to officials.
Museums contribute $50 billion to the U.S. economy each year, and travelers who visit museums spend 60% more on average than other vacationers, according to the American Alliance of Museums. The Shedd is a member of the organization, and is also accredited by the Association for Zoos and Aquariums. It’s also known as the world’s leading dolphin and beluga whale care facility.
“For every direct job at a museum, an additional job is supported elsewhere in the economy,” according to the alliance’s website. “This is a higher rate than many other industries.”
Coughlin said the construction phase of the project will specifically include a percentage of minority- and women-owned businesses. The American Alliance of Museums noted in blogs in 2021 that other museums have been working to incorporate equity and social impact considerations into projects.
“We are proud that Shedd has committed to making sure that diversity and equity are central to this project,” said Ald. Sophia King, 4th. “This includes preference given to residents in Chicago’s 4th Ward and the surrounding neighborhoods of Douglas, Grand Boulevard, Hyde Park, Kenwood, North Kenwood, Oakland and the South Loop. Through this work, we will spread the economic benefit to areas that have been overlooked for too long.”
The aquarium also wants to make learning more equitable as part of its centennial commitment.
“This will be done to fight environmental injustices and systemic racism that have historically impacted these communities,” said Lisa Junkin Lopez, vice president of learning and community for the aquarium.
“Our future education programs need to be accessible. It is a fact that too many young people in Chicago, primarily Black and Latinx, have never laid eyes on Lake Michigan,” Lopez said.
“We have to work to erase the barriers that exist that prevent Chicagoans on the South and West sides from spending time in nature.
“The commitment will allow us to increase the number of students served annually to 230,000 by 2030,” she said. “We believe we will impact 1.7 million students over the next 10 years in neighborhood spaces, online and at Shedd. ”
School field trips have often been drop-in experiences, she said, but now students will be immersed in hands-on and interactive activities such as livestreaming with researchers in the Bahamas.
Students may, for example, learn about a tool conservation researchers are using off coastlines called a stress box.
“The tool allows them to test the tolerance of different coral species to heat. Because our oceans are warming, some corals do better than others,” Lopez said. “It’s really important to me that our learning opportunities be hands-on experiential, but also grounded in real world problems and problem-solving.”
A pilot program called kayaking for conservation will be expanded to reach more children and adults. Kayak programs, in which guests explore invasive species and other conservation issues, have been located on the North Branch of the Chicago River.
“We are increasingly working to make sure folks of color have an opportunity to be on the river — to see nature,” Lopez said.
Visitors may know that Shedd has a long history of conservation and science but may not know about all the programs. For example, “The Shedd has worked very hard to establish robust relationships in the Bahamas and the Great Lakes regions,” Sloan said.
In the Bahamas, the Shedd has an 80-foot-long research station called the Coral Reef. Students and professionals live aboard the station and work together to gather long-term data on species such as the endangered rock iguana.
“One of the largest shark sanctuaries in the Atlantic Ocean is in the Bahamas,” Sloan said. The new project and commitment will enable the Shedd to complete surveys of 7,000 square miles of shark habitat.
In addition, researchers are studying heat tolerance on more than 500 strains of critically endangered staghorn coral. As the climate gets warmer, researchers want to know which corals are more resistant to heat and then how to breed those corals and plant them so they will survive.
A Science Hub will include new technologies and devices to sequence genes of corals and identify how to grow them. The hub also will advance the breeding of tropical marine fish. Labs scattered throughout the aquarium will be housed at the hub to encourage more scientific collaborations, she said.
Sloan said most broadly the Shedd is known for taking care of animals. “It is both a privilege and a deep responsibility we have for aquatic life wherever it lives, within our walls or out in the wild,” Sloan said.
“We want to make sure we are not contributing to any of the problems we are trying to solve,” she said. “Part of animal welfare is making sure they have a high quality of life and also that they have a long life.”
In fact, some animals the Shedd houses are now extinct in the wild, she said.
“We in Chicago are so fortunate to have the Great Lakes all around us,” Sloan said. “If we can’t figure out a way to have people in cities, particularly in a city like Chicago really care about aquatic life — all this research and all of this care doesn’t really matter if people don’t value it.”