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Inside the AMNH’s new ocean exhibit, with 30 very excited fourth graders

‘I love the seahorses. They’re so cute!’

A partial replica of a Triton submersible in the new exhibit Unseen Oceans at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
Photo: AMNH / D. Finnin

I had hoped that getting a media preview of a new museum exhibition meant having the luxury of strolling around undisturbed, without the crowds that turn any museum visit in New York into Macy’s on Black Friday. Instead, there are dozens of other journalists with cameras on tripods — and about 30 very excited fourth graders.

It’s Tuesday morning, and I’m at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan to take a look at a new exhibition called Unseen Oceans. The museum has arranged for the fourth graders to be here so that the media can take nice pictures of children learning cool stuff. Like many things that are great for the cameras, it’s distressing as an experience.

An array of model fishes and turtles that are now known to glow.
Photo: AMNH / R. Mickens

The exhibition, which opens to the public on March 12th, unfolds over six dimly lit circular rooms that are pretty small, so it’s impossible not to bump into other people.

The kids look like they’re in a candy store, running frantically from one attraction to the other, barely paying attention to the plastic signs spewing out information. “I love the seahorses. They’re so cute!” cries a girl. She’s looking at a cylindrical tank hosting the creatures; called lined seahorses, they can glow red and green. “Come over here! This is cooler!” says another girl, dragging her friend away from the glowing fishes, into a “meet the scientist” corner. The scientist corner holds their attention for about a second before they scurry away.

The “meet the scientist” corner the kids are ignoring is a part of the exhibition’s point. Circular side rooms and panels are scattered throughout the exhibit to introduce visitors to oceanographic engineers, microbiologists, and deep-sea biologists. These scientists invent their own tech to track the sound of whales or pick up sponges from the sea floor without hurting them.

Visitors can find out how a biofluorescent fish looks under different lighting and through the lens of specialized underwater cameras.
Photo: AMNH / R. Mickens

New technologies like rovers and low-light cameras, the exhibit carefully demonstrates, are allowing us to study the oceans like never before. “This is the golden age of marine exploration,” AMNH president Ellen Futter says. Diving into the vast, blue expanses that cover about 70 percent of our planet is “more important than space exploration,” says Ray Dalio, the president of the Dalio Foundation funding the exhibition. From the oxygen we breathe to the food we eat, we depend on healthy oceans. So the goal of the exhibition, Dalio says, is to create excitement for the biggest influencer on the planet: the sea.

In a sense, the exhibition felt to me like an interactive, American version of Blue Planet II, minus the soothing David Attenborough narration. Blue Planet II, the latest BBC documentary about the oceans, also focuses a lot on the cutting-edge camera tech used to film underwater like never before. The exhibition even features BBC footage from the series and a replica of a Triton submersible that was used in the series. The submersible is there for photo ops, and as I walked by it, I could just see the line of smartphone-yielding visitors patiently waiting for their turn to take the perfect selfie in the yellow Triton #UnseenOceans.

The plankton room.
Photo: AMNH / R. Mickens

The room of plankton, those marine drifters that are the bottom of the food chain, is the most striking. These creatures are usually too tiny to see with the naked eye. But here, enlarged models — some glowing blue and green above my head — show some of them in terrifying detail. One carnivorous zooplankton looks like a spidery lobster with the bulbous head of an ant. Or as Michael Novacek, the AMNH curator of paleontology, whispers: “It looks like an alien!”

While I’m absorbed by the plankton, the children — the museum’s actual target audience — linger more at the interactive displays. One is a “kinetic sand table” where six girls were dipping their hands in wet sand creating “underwater” canyons and mountains (“It’s so fun! You have to try it.”); the other is a video game that lets them pilot a submersible and collect specimens.

Children pilot a submersible and collect specimens.
Photo: AMNH / D. Finnin

As I exit the exhibition, I’m nearly blinded by the bright gift shop lights. It’s relieving to be in a less crowded place, even one selling “Whale hello there” shirts and huge blue-and-purple jellyfish pillows. As my eyes adjust to the light, I wonder how much of the information given in the exhibition — including how climate change is changing our oceans — will stay with those fourth graders. Will they remember that the sea is acidifying because of our carbon emissions? Or will they just recall how cool the kinetic sand table was? How do you make people excited about exploring the oceans (if you’re not Elon Musk)?

Then, the answer comes to me. After the exhibition preview, we’re led to (yet another crowded) behind-the-scenes tour of the museum’s fish and marine invertebrate collections. Here, there’s a huge vat filled with yellow 75 percent alcohol and the corpse of a giant squid caught in New Zealand in 1997. As Mark Siddall, curator of the Annelida and Mollusca collections, opens the tank with the help of others, he warns us to take a step back. As the lid comes off, the odor wafts through the room: it smells like a thrift store soaked in vodka.

AMNH scientific staff process the giant squid specimen upon its arrival at the museum in 1998.
Photo: AMNH / P.Rollins

Now, put that decrepit giant squid into an exhibition about the oceans, and I guarantee you it’ll stay with people forever. They will remember what they saw — or sniffed. “It smells like a calamari martini,” Siddall exclaims.

That’s not something you see on Blue Planet II.