Reputation is everything, or so it can be said. Visitors' opinions are critical to the success of individual institutions that rely upon revenue from the public. Reputation often drives visitation decisions...will one even go in the first place or will one go again? An informal, pre-visit survey of the Longwood Graduate Fellows (class of 2006), while en route to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, indicated that the Aquarium had a strong, positive reputation. Comments included, "My family has been trying to plan a visit here for years" and "I have heard that it is the best aquarium in the country." The visit to the Aquarium aimed to broaden the experiences of the Fellows and illustrate how a seemingly different not-for-profit institution shares similar goals with organizations that represent public horticulture.
The mission statement of the Aquarium is simple, "To inspire conservation of the oceans." Subtle and not-so-subtle reminders of this statement permeate throughout the Aquarium. It is printed in several prime locations, including a prominent and visible positioning near the ticket booths. Immediate communication of the mission statement encourages the public to regard the visit as more than mere entertainment, and its repetition throughout the infrastructure is anything but subliminal. The exhibits support the mission by offering education about the specific animals displayed, while simultaneously encouraging involvement beyond the Aquarium.
Practical suggestions for carrying out the mission of conservation are plentiful for visitors. In one of the many areas designed for children, signs offered suggestions that ranged from the simple to the complex. A café simulation "invited" the audience of Aquarium visitors to sit on the mock diner's stools and listen to three video characters discuss both environmentally friendly and unhealthy choices of fish and other foods. Pocket-sized cards could be taken home as a reminder of what the video characters had just illustrated as desirable and undesirable fish choices. In another area of the Aquarium, a display board provided visitors with pre-addressed postcards that could be mailed to their elected officials, inquiring about environmental issues. The cards could be taken home or deposited directly into a box next to the display. This is only a sampling of the suggestions that convey the Aquarium's mission to the visitor. Despite the staggering number of opportunities to learn about conservation-based involvement on a personal level, the effect was not overpowering and did not "pollute" the atmosphere of the Aquarium.
Perhaps one of the most impressive aspects of the Aquarium is its focus on local flora and fauna in its permanent collection. There are countless species that merit attention, but highlighting local species is an effective means to further their clearly stated mission. Uniting people with the amazing creatures that share their neighboring environment encourages emotional connections; it also strengthens one's sense of responsibility and the ability to make thoughtful choices that protect the resources in the immediate vicinity of one's home.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium may place great emphasis on local flora and fauna but not at the expense of the interest incited by exotic species. The exhibit, "The Shark: Myth and Mystery" conveys stories about sharks in a unique way, departing from the clinical approach popularly found in other zoos and aquaria. Instead of focusing on the physiology of sharks, Monterey 's exhibit reveals stories of the relationships between local populations and sharks from around the world. Highlighting these cultural connections showcases the importance of sharks, while not sacrificing important educational information about their physiology.
The shark exhibit epitomizes the character of exhibit labels unique to the Aquarium. Traditional labels list species information and offer clinical facts about habitat and diet, occasionally offering an interesting tidbit of information. Typically, the reader may have forgotten the message within moments of moving away from the sign. The labels at the Monterey Bay Aquarium identify species and convey facts, but are written with great awareness of the visitor. Simple headings describe the information that will follow, offering an overview that eases the decision of whether or not to read the sign. Carefully calculated word counts and multiple word-play tricks distill substantial information down to manageable portions. Humor effectively conveys a message; however, it takes a strong and knowledgeable institution to present a message successfully in a light-hearted way. Clips of the 1970's "Saturday Night Live" television episode that presents a door-knocking shark as "candy gram" delivery person, offer a humorous insight into the relationship that Americans have with sharks. A quote above the television reads, "There are 350 varieties of sharks, not including pool and loan." These approaches led this writer to consider the relationship with sharks in a far more lasting way than any other sign about sharks has previously done. Interpretive decisions about the species on display and accompanying graphical information were a real departure from the traditional museum mindset.
Combinations of seemingly disparate collections can effectively emphasize the target collection, rather than distract from it. "Jellies: Living Art" is a great example of this strategy. The exhibit of the jellyfish offers a previously unnoticed connection between art and life for this writer. Breathtaking displays of glass sculpture, lithographs, sculpture and drawings showcase the elegance and delicacy of the jellies in a way that simple tanks of sea water would not. The exhibit reflects an art gallery rather than an aquarium. The tanks of jellyfish are displayed in a reverence-inspiring manner identical to the paired man-made art, complete with decorative trim and lowered light. The Aquarium successfully bridges the gap between life and fine art, affording the visitor an increased appreciation for the art of the nature-created and nature-inspired.
Public horticulture can learn a great deal from the Monterey Bay Aquarium's success in capturing the interest of people and finding support for an inspirational mission of conservation. Revitalized approaches to sharing information about plants, ranging from species name to habitat significance, can give life to an industry that is deeply appreciated by only a small percentage of our population. Ideas that can be adopted by horticulture organizations could include stronger conveyance of the mission statement, enhanced exhibit labels, and/or consideration of diverse combinations and unique approaches to collections presentation. Public horticulture needs to find the charismatic flora that will excite the general public and cause them to linger a bit longer, as the Monterey Bay Aquarium successfully does through its own proven track record.
The reputation of quality of the Monterey Bay Aquarium will continue in the minds of the Longwood Graduate Fellows, as they were not disappointed. "Hands down, the best museum exhibit and experience ever" and "The themed exhibits were a different and effective approach to conventional displays" were the comments upon leaving the Aquarium. The museum experience not only exceeded our expectations as students, it incited further appreciation of the ocean. Most importantly, the experience promoted consideration of how a successful model can be adapted and applied to the public horticulture field.