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Exhibit at Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

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  • Robert Schmidt
    http://www.nytimes.com/2008/09/27/arts/design/27ocea.html September 27, 2008 Exhibition Review | Sant Ocean Hall at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural
    Message 1 of 1 , Sep 30, 2008

      September 27, 2008

      Exhibition Review | Sant Ocean Hall at the Smithsonian National Museum of
      Natural History
      Diving Into a New World


      WASHINGTON — The Sant Ocean Hall at the Smithsonian National Museum of
      Natural History, which opens on Saturday, isn’t just about 71 percent of
      the Earth’s surface. It is the largest renovation in the museum’s
      century-long history and a transformation of its largest exhibition space,
      making it as much about the museum’s future as about the ocean’s.

      Yes, of course, water takes center stage. When you enter the new hall off
      the Beaux Arts rotunda, the dimmed, atmospheric lighting is meant to
      suggest the sea; an illuminated blue panel coaxes: “Dive in. Discover it
      with us.” And well above floor level are eight giant video screens showing
      schools of fish and sea creatures near Belize, the Galápagos Islands and
      other aquatic utopias pulsing with oceanic life. It is as if the entire
      23,000-square-foot exhibition space were submerged in a giant natural

      But because of the ambition of this project — $80 million was raised from
      public and private sources, including $22 million from the National Oceanic
      and Atmospheric Administration — and because it opens as the troubled
      Smithsonian Institution’s administration is in transition, the hall draws
      attention not only to what it displays but also to what it represents. What
      it shows is considerable: nearly 700 of the museum’s 80 million marine
      specimens; a 24-foot-long squid found 1,300 feet below the ocean’s surface
      off the Spanish coast; extraordinary images of creatures that astonish
      landlocked imaginations. But the hall also codifies a major change in the
      evolution of the natural history museum.

      The transformation has been going on for decades. And because this hall’s
      presentation is so strong (despite its flaws), it helps make that vision
      clear; with some modifications, it could serve as an example for future
      Smithsonian revisions.

      For almost 100 years the same space, now used to show the diversity of the
      ocean’s creatures, sample its fossils or exhibit the life forms of the
      darkest realms of the deep, was focused on non-Western ethnography and the
      American Indian. Those exhibits, now retired, were an essential part of the
      mythological narrative of the 19th-century natural history museum, of which
      this institution was a late but imposing example.

      That old model typically resembled a temple within which the citizen of the
      West would survey the natural world — dinosaurs, taxidermic animals,
      geologic marvels — along with the icons and totems of premodern and
      non-Western tribal cultures. Here is the world out of which modern man
      evolved, these institutions declared, inspiring appreciation for the
      wonders of nature and the strangeness of other cultures; of course, they
      also drew attention to the elevated perspective of the Western observer who
      was making sense of these objects.

      Because today’s natural history collections were shaped under that
      influence, they still reflect it to some extent, even as they work out
      different interpretations. The Smithsonian certainly will not be getting
      rid of its valuable ethnographic material, nor should it. (Indeed, the
      ocean displays feature some examples, including whaling tools of the
      Alaskan Inupiat and a 26-foot Tlingit canoe commissioned for the hall.)

      The nearby National Museum of the American Indian has put forward more
      radical ideas about what should be done, but the natural history museum is
      working on its own plan for new anthropology halls, which will not open for
      at least five years. The first floor’s three major halls are now devoted to
      the natural world: mammals, dinosaurs and now the ocean.

      But as the portrayal of human cultures has changed, the Ocean Hall shows
      how the portrayal of the natural world has as well. First, the displays
      deliberately push humanity off center stage. They emphasize not what we
      have accomplished or have collected, but what is unknown or beyond our
      complete knowledge. Understanding is stymied by the immensity of the world
      being faced (a similar sentiment to the one inspired by a new model of
      planetarium embodied by the Rose in New York).

      Thus the hall’s first section demonstrates that the ocean is more complex
      and diverse than we can easily grasp. There are translucent heteropods,
      small, gelatinous creatures with bulbous black eyes: predators deceptively
      housed in lovely white nautilus-shaped shells. And there is the Atlantic
      footballfish, a creature so grotesque, with its gaping mouth and gnome’s
      complexion, that its name could come from a desire to kick it.

      The sea, embracing extremes of size, contains some of the earth’s “tallest
      forests,” including giant kelp more than 300 feet tall, along with
      microscopic creatures, phytoplankton, that produce “at least half the
      earth’s oxygen.” We try to classify life forms but are often led astray by
      false resemblances and puzzled by new discoveries. A white parasite found
      on the lips of a Norway lobster in 1995 was named Symbion pandora, but its
      seeming uniqueness led to its being placed alone in a new phylum.

      These are not displays laden with special effects or interactive screens;
      the impact is more restrained. Even though there is a 1,500-gallon coral
      reef aquarium in one gallery and, in another, a rotating model of the Earth
      on which informative simulations and presentations appear, the museum’s
      specimens are mainly colorless creatures preserved in alcohol. They are
      given life by extraordinary photographs or videos (with a nudge provided by
      the hall’s atmospherics). But the point is clearly made: this world is one
      in which humans are destined to be dimly groping for understanding and

      At best, this leads to a kind of hushed humility, particularly when
      confronted with information about the scalding deep-sea vents where the
      earth’s heat propels 700-degree jets of water into the ocean. Even in this
      hostile environment life forms have been discovered, including bacteria
      that use seemingly poisonous hydrogen sulfide from the vent water to make
      food for their hosts. In a 13-minute film, “Deep Ocean Explorers,” veteran
      scientists talk of their descent to the darkest regions of the sea with an
      appealingly innocent wonder.

      Such humility, though, can also be connected with another sense that has
      grown over the last half-century: humanity is not a part of nature;
      humanity is apart from nature. It can even seem an intruder in the world
      that it once confidently ruled. Thus we see the fishing nets that
      accidentally catch right whales like the one named Phoenix, who was born in
      1987 and tracked ever since; she bears the scars of her escape, as we can
      see, because hanging overhead is her 45-foot replica.

      We are told of the dangers of the overharvesting of fish, the hazards of
      industrial waste, the risks of global warming. Computer kiosks challenge
      viewers to propose ways to reduce their carbon footprints. Next to the
      harshest aspects of humanity’s effects evoked in such environmental
      displays, an exhibit’s gaping, sharp-toothed, 25 million-year-old jawbone
      of a great white shark looks almost welcoming.

      Over all, though, the hall is relatively judicious in these warnings,
      working hard to find Homo sapiens a proper place to stand. It tries not to
      break completely with the traditional museum model. It even celebrates the
      crucial importance of collecting specimens, since the institution has a
      scientific research arm.

      And in one long side gallery is a narrative history of oceanic evolution
      told through fossils, including, most dramatically, a wall on which the
      “great dying” is displayed: 252 million years ago nearly 95 percent of all
      sea species became extinct. The cause might have been a volcanic eruption
      or an asteroid — a disaster that dwarfs the more familiar disappearance of
      dinosaurs 65 million years ago. You proceed past a display laden with stone
      creatures, then pass a red barrier representing the catastrophe and are
      faced with the few survivors.

      There is room for improvement, of course. In some galleries explanations
      could be clearer. And the museum could have been more imaginative in some
      expositions, the way Deborah Cramer so often is in her inspiring companion
      volume to the hall, “Smithsonian Ocean: Our Water, Our World.”

      But so much can be learned here, and the new model of the museum is so well
      integrated with the valuable parts of the old that the Ocean Hall makes the
      sea change in museum life look promising.

      The Sant Ocean Hall opens on Saturday at the Smithsonian National Museum of
      Natural History, 10th Street and Constitution Avenue NW, Washington; (202)
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