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The Negative Environmental Impact of Marine Life in Museums

To address the urgency of our climate crisis, exhibitions highlighting destructive environmental actions –particularly ocean plastic consumption – have become increasingly popular.

In an effort to alleviate the eco-anxiety and eco-grief that visitors experience after seeing images related to ocean pollution, museums have begun to curate aquarium-like displays of living marine life to help visitors picture what clean, healthy and sustainable oceans can look like.

In the MuseumNext: Next Generation Summit, ocean activist, Annika Mazzarella, talked about the ‘fishy’ underwater world of ocean exploitation in museums. Annika delves into the pros and cons of creating living aquatic displays and the routes museum can take in the future to address the ethics of using marine life.

Marine life in museums

The Canadian Museum of Nature’s Pacific Discovery Tank features a newly installed interactive feature. Visitors can pet aquatic creatures from the Pacific Coast of Canada and ask questions of museum worker about different aquatic habitats.

This multisensory learning is incredibly important in helping to bring attention to marine and conservation biology. But it also acts as an important platform to encourage longer-term interest and potential fields of study – particularly for children interested in discovering more about marine life. Like aquariums and zoos, displays of marine life in museums promotes greater educational accessibility for those lacking in the time, ability, finances or coastal location to connect with the ocean and marine life.

Displaying marine life in a museum setting inevitability raises some ethical concerns. It’s important to play devil’s advocate when weighing up the educational advantages against the concern that museums are actively participating in ocean exploitation.

Of course, exploitative behaviours, specifically ocean exploitation, is not necessarily unsustainable. Fishing and specimen collection can be justified by museums. But by doing so museums must acknowledge their role modelling of exploitative behaviours and practices. Serving fish on the menu, funding deep water explorations and displaying marine life in exhibitions is all part of those behaviours. Whilst not necessarily something to find fault in – museums do have a responsibility to acknowledge their own active practices of ocean exploitation before ocean activism can reach its full potential.

Captivity or curation?

Museums are classed as cultural institutions and despite instigating best practices for the care and welfare of aquatic animals, plants and organisms, museums nevertheless participate in captivity. In contrast to the entertainment value used to justify captivity by zoos and aquariums, captivity by museums can nevertheless result in changes in behaviour and breeding patterns in spite of the curatorial value.

Similarly, removing marine life from a natural habitat can have a negative impact on marine biodiversity and ecosystems. Even specimen removal, such as seashells, can have a serious impact on ecosystem disturbance.

Aquarium-like displays

Many museum aquarium exhibits fail to communicate marine environments as they actually exist in the wild: polluted. By taking this approach, we may contend that museums are failing to visually communicate the truth about plastic and pollution content in the water. In turn, this approach fails to present the urgency and sense of responsibility visitors should feel towards the protection of marine environments.

There are many pros to displaying marine life in museums to help relieve eco anxiety and encourage ocean empathy and visitor-led learning in STEM education. However, the cons are also clear. Considering the arguments for both, Annika explains,

“I strongly believe that the negative environmental impact of removing living and/or non-living marine life from our oceans is too great to ignore and too destructive to continue.”

She continues, “It is hypocritical of museums to deliver ocean awareness, education and literacy while simultaneously, without formal acknowledgement, participate in behaviours and practices of ocean exploitation. I believe that in order for the next generation of ocean-conscious and environmentally aware museum workers to positively contribute to ongoing ocean conservation efforts, museums need to eliminate curated aquarium-like displays of living marine life.”

Of course, it is unlikely and unrealistic for museums to eliminate all aquatic displays, Annika acknowledges. However, there are alternatives. Firstly, exhibitions which use non-living marine life and through lighting, imagery and 3D virtual reality elements, deliver an underwater experience. Even if visitors cannot touch living marine life, this type of display will encourage them to explore oceans and connect with all the wonders of marine life.

The second alternative would be to design exhibitions without living or non-living marine life. Annika points to National Geographic Encounter: Ocean Odyssey – a fully immersive virtual underwater experience where visitors toured the Pacific Ocean through the use of ground-breaking technologies. This reflects all the pros of marine-focused exhibitions but with the addition of using replica models – a long-held curatorial technique for conservation practices.

Annika concludes that there is a way to create marine displays in museums without risking the ethical challenges that many museums currently face. It is up to museum professionals to ask how they will take action in encouraging ocean activism and reduce the ocean exploitation in aquarium-like displays.

The Green Museums Summit will be held from 26th – 27th February 2024, and will feature inspiring ideas and case studies from those championing sustainability in museums and galleries. Click here to book your tickets now, to make sure you don’t miss out.


About the author – Tim Deakin

Tim Deakin is a journalist and editorial consultant working with a broad range of online publications.

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