Enter into an Immersive World

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been going to aquariums. Anytime my family and I would take trips and vacations, we’d HAVE to go to an aquarium. I’m not even sure just how many times I’ve gone to Maritime Aquarium, in Norwalk, alone; they just never get old for me. So I want to start off this blog entry part 2 (the sequel; see here for part 1) by just saying, I’m really excited to be reading about and discussing and visiting aquariums.

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For my pre-trip presentation on aquariums, I read a chapter, “Zoological Gardens of Japan” by Ken Kawata and “Ciliated Sense” by Eva Hayward. I was a little disappointed in how little the former talked about aquariums, but it did provide me (and I think, my peers during my presentation) some history on aquariums in Japan. Pre-WWII, aquariums were pretty uncommon, but then proliferated and became very popular post-war. Kawata partially attributes this to a cultural phenomenon relating to Japan’s status as an island nation. Like Kawata, I also would’ve expected marine life and aquatic environments to have a profound influence on “language, culture, and food habits.” But the question I had, and posed to my peers, was, “Why only after WWII does this cultural phenomenon occur? It’s not like Japan suddenly became an island nation.” Perhaps a post-war liberation from wartime duties and resource devotion to a war effort? Newfound leisure money?

I’ll put it simply: “Ciliated Sense” was absolutely fascinating. To use an analogy, if I was expecting to dive into a relatively shallow pool, say maybe 9 feet in depth, I think what I got was the Marianas Trench. That is, Eva Hayward puts forth a really interesting, deep discussion of immersion and perception as they relate to aquariums, that I won’t really have time or space to go into here. I highly recommend checking it out, though.

“Ciliated Sense” details the Monterrey Bay Aquarium, so I framed my discussion of aquariums from a Western aquariums perspective; I’m looking forward to seeing how Oota-sensei and the Tokyo Sea Life Park might parallel or challenge my ideas of aquariums. Aquariums began as early as the 19th century in Europe, with “aqua vivariums.” These were geared towards the affluent and to sate intellectual curiosity and religious and biological insights. These aquariums coincided with a time when the oceans were considered a dark, cold, alien world and its inhabitants even more so. So these exhibits, then, became a way to dominate, contain, compartmentalize, and study non-human inhabitants and demonstrate biological knowledge and technological achievement. I think these early ideas really highlight and hearken back to our previous discussions on the “West as conquering nature” ideas, sad as that may sound (especially for me as a marine biologist/ecologist at heart).

Hayward argues, using the Drifters exhibit in Monterrey Bay Aquarium, that at some point modern aquariums shifted to a less binary-generating role. Instead, she suggests, using increasingly more advanced technology and optics, aquarium displays can immerse the viewer in the underwater world of the non-human inhabitants. So instead of contrasting “man-made” and “natural” in aquariums, it seems more a blurring and integration of those binaries. Aquariums such as the Monterrey Bay Aquarium as best as they can aim to recreate and simulate natural ecosystems. Hayward has two major conclusions that I think really resonate with how I also view aquariums: “Animal displays are not simply about seeing the human reflected back upon us” and “We are not only immersed in virtuality; we are immersed in deep marine techno-science worlds.”

Along with those conclusions, I’ll leave you, dear reader, with another series of questions I proposed to my peers:

  • What do you think of when you hear “aquarium”?
  • What do aquariums mean to you? Perhaps a specific aquarium?
  • Why do you go to aquariums? What do you get out of them?