September 23, 2020

Under the Deep Blue Sea> Boston’s New England Aquarium seeks to turn tide with new West Wing

Twenty-eight years after Boston’s New England Aquarium spurred a national mania for aquariums, the big fish is hoping to turn the school in a very different direction.

As it gets ready to open a major expansion, it is rejecting the big-bigger-biggest model of ever larger tanks and displays while seeking to become not only a fun place to watch fish but also a soapbox to evangelize the public to get involved in saving the marine environment.

On Jan. 10, the aquarium opened a new $21 million wing whose undulating, stainless-steel roof is designed to evoke the shimmering gills of a fish. It includes a 200-seat restaurant overlooking the harbor and a two-story exhibit hall that will showcase some of the world’s most exotic marine life.

The wing is the first step in what aquarium President Jerry R. Schubel hopes will be a $100 million, three-year expansion, including big tanks built over the harbor, a marine animal hospital and a big-screen cinema like the Mugar Omni Theatre at the Museum of Science.

Boston’s aquarium continues to be widely considered one of the nation’s best, particularly for the serious science its staff pursues. But Schubel and other aquarium leaders feel a need to breathe new energy into the institution — both for the aquarium’s own sake and to recruit advocates for the world’s increasingly threatened oceans, coasts and bodies of water.

One pressure is to revive attendance: Since 1995, when reconstruction of the Central Artery began in earnest along Atlantic Avenue and State Street on the aquarium’s doorstep, the number of visitors has dropped 14 percent. Officials attribute two-thirds of the decline to the torn-up streets and the rest to the aquarium’s own renovation work, which has made the front entrance a mess of concrete and plywood.

“It’s been hard to convince people that it’s OK to drive down here,” said spokeswoman Susan E. Knapp. It’s a problem that can hardly be ignored. The $10.50 admission fees that adults pay — $5 for kids — contribute half of the yearly budget and will be critical to funding the planned expansion.

The reduced numbers have helped ease what was often an unpleasant crunch for visitors. Built in 1969 to accommodate 600,000 visitors a year, the aquarium has drawn double that figure most years since then, with the crowds heavily concentrated in the summer and school field trip time.

But for the long term, the attendance drop is a troubling trend. “We’re very worried about it,” Schubel said. “When we think ahead to how long the Central Artery [highway] project is going to last, you can’t just say `Suck it up and tough it out.’ … We’re all getting clobbered.”

Beyond bringing more people through the gate, officials are convinced they have a unique and powerful opportunity to, as Schubel puts it, “really make a difference for the world” and build a constituency to save waters and marine life from New England to New Zealand.

“The New England Aquarium’s challenge,” said John F. Keane, chairman of the board, “is to change people’s awareness and behavior — to transform people’s natural curiosity about the sea into a deep and tangible commitment to act on its behalf.”

That goal is helping guide officials as they think through what to include in the East Wing that would be added in the next stage.

These plans, ambitious as they are, mark a sharp shift from as recently as three years ago, when the aquarium talked about building a million-gallon giant ocean tank — four times as big as the existing coral reef tank — with an acrylic wall the size of a two-story house through which visitors could watch hundreds of bluefin tuna and basking sharks.

Now, aquarium officials are leaning toward a less grandiose display focusing on salt marshes and other habitats. “We’re thinking our way through, exhibit by exhibit,” Schubel said. “We’re thinking about: What are the most important stories we want our visitors to go away with?”

“This aquarium started the industry, and now it needs to set a new standard for the industry,” Schubel said. “We’re not about having the biggest tank — it’s a very different kind of experience that we’re trying to create. We’re putting a much greater emphasis on conservation, education and research than any aquarium has ever done before.”

The aquarium hopes to hold the groundbreaking for the East Wing in January, followed in the fall by the launch of construction for a big-screen cinema to open a year later.

One added dimension under consideration is using the cinema to take advantage of the aquarium’s location — heavily trafficked by tourists — to show an updated version of “Where’s Boston?” the 1970s multiscreen slide show about the city’s history, sports teams, neighborhoods and other attractions. The show has been in mothballs for more than a decade.

In April, meanwhile, an expanded free outdoor harbor seal and otter exhibit will open next to the new entrance off Atlantic Avenue.

Construction of the new wing has freed up space inside the original aquarium building for a glassed-in medical center where, since last April, visitors have been able to watch veterinarians working on sick and injured animals.

Also in the works are plans for an aquarium-owned animal rescue and rehabilitation center on one of the Boston Harbor islands, where visitors could go out with marine biologists as they return seals, birds and other creatures to the wild.

“It would hopefully become a major tourist attraction drawing people out to the islands,” Schubel said of the plan, which was once eyed for Cape Cod. That site was later rejected as being too far away.

The year 2000 remains the goal to complete all these elements. “It’s an aggressive schedule, but I don’t see it slipping much,” said Schubel, an oceanographer who came to the aquarium three years ago after a 20-year career at the State University of New York at Stony Brook and quickly launched the ambitious expansion plans.

Whether the facility can get another $80 million — through borrowing, fund raising, or contributions from foundations — is, Schubel acknowledges, a looming question.

In July 1996, for the first time in its history, the aquarium borrowed $25 million through a bond deal to pay for the new wing, which has been under construction since September 1996.

The organization has raised $10 million to pay for the wing. But it has chosen to invest that money in bonds, and, so far, Schubel said, “having debt by choice” has been a good business decision. But with endowment and assets of about $40 million, and yearly contributions of about $2 million, there are clearly limits on how far into hock the aquarium could or should go to finance its expansion, officials acknowledge.

Whatever is ultimately spent, the aquarium’s reputation is already well established. Michael Hutchins, director of conservation and science for the 182-member American Zoo and Aquarium Association in Bethesda, Md., said, “New England is considered one of the top aquariums in the U.S. for a lot of reasons: It’s a great location and a great institution that has a long-term commitment to education and conservation and science.”

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