The Greater or “Lesser” Cleveland Aquarium?
A Naturalist’s View of the New Aquarium
By Robert Carillio
The title suggests a review of the new aquarium on the west bank of the Flats and that is exactly what this will be, with a focus on the Ohio exhibits. Keep in mind I’m not covering every aspect of the aquarium; however, I’ll focus mainly on feature exhibits.
Who am I to write a review?
Well, no one in particular except that I am no stranger to aquariums, having visited many and known quite a few associates in the field. In addition, I have owned and operated a custom aquarium design, installation and maintenance service for many years — once upon a time — with sizes up to a thousand gallons, with a specialty in replicating local stream habitats. I have also been a volunteer local contact for the Ohio region of The North American Native Fishes Association for nearly 10 years in the past and, through that time, I have been an advocate of raising awareness and appreciation for Ohio’s “lesser known” but no “less important” fishes for about 22 years. My inspiration began with the classic Trautman book The Fishes Of Ohio, hiking our woodlands and gazing into and wading in creeks seining for fishes. In fact, one of my first “crude” educational aquarium displays, believe it or not, was located in the former Gamekeepers Restaurant on the second level of the Powerhouse.
I know this reads like some touting resume, but that is not my intent at all; rather, it is to offer you some insight as to why I have formed my following evaluations of the Greater Cleveland Aquarium. By no means have my services been geared toward the scale of the grander-scale aquariums; nonetheless, one grasps a very good understanding of many facets of the field in a scaled down model.
I actually welcome an aquarium to the Flats. It is something that can help promote a more family-oriented dynamic neighborhood instead of one solely built around stuffing one’s face and drinking to oblivion. Aquariums offer education about something that impacts each and every one of us — the health of the world’s waters!
Very First Impressions
Now, without further hesitation, I will describe my visit and offer letter grades for the various components of the aquarium, beginning with my phone call to the place. As a trained voiceover, I was not very impressed with the recording presented to the public. It sounded like the same girl in high school who used to read the morning announcements on the P.A. system. I know this may seem like nit picking, but I am someone who wants to make every detail count in presenting a product and am a little tired of Cleveland accepting mediocre standards as the norm. In an aquarium, or any public attraction for that matter, I feel a lot of it begins with the staff and people who greet us. I give the phone recording — the first voice of the aquarium presented to the public via phone — a grade D.
Now for the actual visit…
A public aquarium is — or at least should be — a place that educates the public about the importance of the global aquatic world and its relation to our own survival by featuring the aquatic habitat’s fishes (along with other animals from various parts of the world) beginning with our very own backyard. It should somewhat demonstrate how all waters tie together. Although I love the Powerhouse architecturally, I felt the surroundings looked somewhat unkempt, rather tired and littered around the perimeter of the property.
I hope the Aquarium can use this situation as a chance to educate the public about the importance of keeping litter off our streets and ultimately out of our local waters since litter, indeed, makes its way to our waters via storm drains. What gets pitched onto the street may end up polluting our lake. Litter prevention is a basic ABC of sustainability and conservation where, in my opinion, Cleveland/NEO severely lags behind. Please do the very least — keep all cigarette butts and other littler picked up from around the building. Your responsibility or not, GCA, it could reflect poorly in first impressions. The upkeep and immediate presentation of the venue from the outside gets a grade C-.
Stepping inside the venue, I was pleasantly surprised although confused as to exactly WHERE the entrance was. The signage, or lack thereof, was rather poor. I was impressed with the fact that the Aquarium was somehow made to adapt inside this building. I can only imagine the extreme challenges this presented designers! So, in terms of adaptive re-use and re-purposing of valued structures — and the benefits that has in promoting the “recycling” of buildings, the Aquarium gets an A+. Whether this example was the intent of the initiative or not, this is a good example of the re-use of buildings.
Making my way inside, I was helpfully greeted by very friendly staff members. This is an area — customer service and enthusiastic attitude — our city has needed to improve upon for a long time. I really felt the “Walt Disney” level of hospitality. The grade here? Solid B.
Now for the first series of exhibits: The lakes, rivers and streams of Ohio
Uh oh! (You will learn why I say this later… read on!) Again, I feel I must first offer a reminder that for many years, myself and many other nature nuts like me in the area have dedicated so much of our time to presenting these local aquatic habitats we take for granted every day — even see as rather mundane — in the best possible fashion through aquaria.
An aquarium is more than seeing fish in a tank, so my goal when presenting a native fishes exhibit was to, as much as possible, replicate the all encompassing and intertwined habitat to give the viewer a maximum appreciation of our local environments. The habitat is every bit as important as the fish and other animals. Without it, you do not have them, and without the fish, no habitat — and ultimately without both, you do not have us.
The purpose of my replicating habitats in presenting our local fish fauna was, in the first place, so that I could get people excited to understand and appreciate their function and importance to us. I felt this is so important in a region virtually devoid in the general public as to just how important these environments are to our own existence.
I tried to achieve the above by replicating the real lighting, the plants, riverbank overhangs, trees, leaves, rootwads, wood, rocks, pools, riffles, runs, preparing the right diet and water temperatures for fish and so on. The result was stunning. I heard people say, “That habitat exists HERE?! And those fish live HERE?!”
How can I say this… there is no easy way to put it. (Clears throat! Uhh humm!)
The local aquatic habitat presentation at this aquarium is the poorest representation I have ever seen in my whole life of such a subject theme. In every component of delivering a quality display as I mention above, it fails. It is bland, sterile and not even mediocre. Little to NO effort was made to attempt to achieve the above. I have actually seen better presentations of our native fishes in bait shops and simple state park nature centers. This one resembled more of the lure demonstration tanks at a Cabelas store or maybe the make-shift tanks at a sportsmen trade show.
The Aquarium has a chance to impress the largely devoid-of-knowledge, understanding, or appreciation segment in NEO. But, instead, visitors are left with the impression that all our native aquatic habitats are lifeless and boring; that we are “ecologically inferior” to all that colorful tropical stuff that is given so much attention to detail.
Displaying our native aquatic fauna is a detailed art in its own way
Displaying native North American fishes is an art unto itself. Unless we talk about fish in the darter family, they generally lack the kind of primary colors of the artists palette — the reds, yellows, and blues. But, at the same time, boast a myriad of iridescent and rustic colors of Autumn that compliment the woodland environments to which they’re native.
Knowing this, you must choose the right lighting, substrate, habitat (which is just as important as the fish… no habitat, no fish!), diet, water temperatures and even the right mix of fish, and aquarium sizes/styles to create the best possible viewer experience. The aquarium fails to demonstrate this in the least. Adding to this, we must realize that “bigger is not always better” and that, sometimes, smaller fishes such as those in the minnow family are better appreciated in smaller micro-habitat aquariums that feature a few select fishes from a given habitat along with replicating that habitat.
These micro-habitat-style of aquariums are much easier to see and make it much easier to decipher the differences between the fishes. They encourage, because of their smaller size, viewers to walk up and take a closer, more intimate look of their tiny world. On the other hand, as featured in the GCA, a tank full of various minnows that is too large has them all looking the same, and therefore there is not much incitement or “lure” to take a closer look. Instead, people think, “Oh, a big tank with minnows… ho hum… let’s move on.”
If you come to the Gardens Under Glass store in the Galleria in downtown Cleveland, you will see “The Watershed” exhibit. This display will speak mountains for what I am trying to articulate in words.
The only positive thing I can say about this part of the aquarium is that the interpretive texts were well done. As for the exhibits themselves? They leave much to be desired. The good news is that with a few small low cost adjustments many of these issues can be resolved. I can only hope they will be as time progresses.
That said, I invite the folks at the aquarium to please get in touch with myself and a group who is dedicated to presenting our fishes and their habitats in the most spectacular “wow effect” way. Please, GCA, this is an opportunity to get people to appreciate our local waters, habitats and aquatic life like they have never before, so please do not allow this current version of the Ohio lakes, rivers, and streams exhibit to be the best this gets. It really is a slap in the face to what others have tried to achieve for so long and just reaffirms that “ecological inferiority complex” I was alluding to earlier.
To summarize the native fishes exhibit…
The fishes, as I would have expected in their current presentation format, appeared poor. Many of their colors, patterns and tones were completely washed out and I do not feel time will remedy this, given the lack of habitat design and with the current displays and materials used. We’re left with an extremely inaccurate and poor representation of our fishes which leads to NOT commanding the respect they deserve. As I loosely stated earlier… It leaves folks with the mentality that suggests “all our fish must be ugly and the rest of the world’s fish must be pretty and colorful… so let’s protect them and the hell with the rest!” Sadly, this is the image it creates as we tend to be selective stewards of nature. We, who love these fish and environments, want nothing in return for simply helping you deliver a far better product. So, my overall experience with this first portion of the aquarium, being a native fishes a-fish-ionado, was an underwhelming disappointment. I give this portion a grade F-.
Now on to the freshwater tropical section
The species diversity in this section was fairly decent, interpretive texts concise and easy to understand for a public with an eroding attention span. The style of aquariums and displays were not too bad. I guess it is easy to overlook any lack in habitat replication here because the colorful fish seem to take our minds away from what the aquariums lack in habitat substance. The educational interpretive texts were decent and the displays many. I would have to give this section a space between a C+ or B-.
The touch pool was functional and perfect for hands-on demonstration. In this exhibit, I have to give a grade B. The “Lobster Look-Up” display was rather interesting and I will give that one an “A” just for fun and creativity, as well as the space that allowed people to look up to the powerhouse smokestack and measure the height. This part reminded you how difficult and challenging it must have been to incorporate an aquarium into this building and offered a sublime message about how “cool” re-purposing buildings can be!
Now for the rest
I soon ventured into the caves and tunnels of the powerhouse and viewed many saltwater aquariums. While their sizes were fairly impressive for an aquarium in a building of this size, they lacked substance — again, in habitat replication. I was remembering my aquarium store I used to operate in this section and was thinking that the material used in the habitats looked more like inflated versions of the old Penn Plax aquarium decorations. I was wondering when I was going to see the little diver with bubbles coming out of his helmet! I honestly thought much of the materials used in these exhibits were rather cheaply looking. I would have suggested a company called “Signature Corals” for duplicating corals, but hey, I’m not the boss, am I? But, they would have looked much more realistic than what I saw. I give these various displays a grade C-.
Speaking of corals, I was expecting to see at least a couple exhibits with live coral demonstrations, but that was not the case. That would be important due to the fact that many people think corals are not actually living things, but more so some sort of rocks. The waters were cloudy in many of these systems — but this is probably due to “new tank syndrome” which happens in small home aquariums and can be an issue even in the new largest of aquariums, so this should improve over time.
The main attraction!
My last major observation of the day was the walk-through shark tunnel. It delivers in scale. Big, bold, mysterious, and a little scary… and amazing at the same time getting nose to nose with these ancient creatures as well as schools of many other species of fishes. It appears, however, that the sharks have little room to actually swim overhead. The water appears to be really shallow at the top, making it difficult for the sharks to actually swim over your head as one might be expecting. Nonetheless, cramped as it may seem, this exhibit basically saves this entire GCA attraction from being, overall, very average or even embarrassing. I give this exhibit a B+.
My overall opinion of GCA
In summary, I have not evaluated every exhibit here. Mainly I focused on most of the features. The diversity in species representation is fairly decent but nothing spectacular in an attraction of this size… and the educational opportunity is fair. The aquarium is possibly fun, especially I would think, for Moms and Dads bringing in the kids for something to do who are not true aquarium connoisseurs. But, by no means is it something that would keep me coming back again and again through the purchase of an annual pass. So, for a family-oriented activity it should do well… for a while. I do not feel it is worth the price of the admission.
From my observations, however, in order to remain viable in the long term GCA will need to improve the quality and presentation of its exhibits all around. In its current state it reminds me more of a giant quality aquarium store, rather than an iconic public aquarium museum type attraction. It is more so reflective of a new version of a roadside attraction on Rt. 66… or a disappointing sequel to a good movie.
The gift shop and overall final grade
Before I forget to mention, I will have to say the gift shop is a fun little place, but they could have added some fantastic “Fishes Of Cleveland” gifts like T-shirts to give this place a real fun local flair and to draw attention to our wonderful lesser known beautiful fishes (like how darters are supposed to look!). But, as poor as they are represented in the native Ohio fishes exhibit, I don’t know that a T-Shirt can redeem much. Gift Shop grade… B- But overall, I give the entire place as a whole, a C… and truthfully, that is being kind. But hey, this is me. If this mediocre food suits Clevelanders fine, then they can continue eating it. I think we should expect — and deserve — more with a higher standard and not just eat the bread and water we’re given and treated as though we have to like it. I have a concern that if this place does not do well, that it would possibly hinder future public support for a more world-class aquarium in the future — one in which all of Cleveland and N.E. Ohio can be proud. Meanwhile, I wonder how many people actually take note to the difference in quality right under our nose at our very own Zoo’s aquatic exhibits.
[Oh and one final note... at the top is a photo of what a Longear Sunfish should look like in an aquarium, and the bottom of a Rainbow Darter..... Just in case you didn't get the full effect of one in the aquarium.]