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dolphin and calf at the Shedd Aquarium

A commitment to conservation at Shedd Aquarium

CEO Bridget Coughlin explains the attraction’s mission and lays out its $500m Centennial Commitment

Bridget Coughlin CEO of Shedd Aquarium

Bridget C. Coughlin, PhD has been president and chief executive officer of Shedd Aquarium since 2016, overseeing activities and initiatives, and leading the Aquarium’s mission to spark compassion, curiosity and conservation for the aquatic animal world.

Under her aegis, the Aquarium welcomes 1.9 million guests a year, offering a range of innovative experiences and initiatives focused on the Shedd’s mission of compassion, curiosity and conservation for the aquatic animal world. 

A relentless advocate for access in all ways, Dr Coughlin commits the organisation to offering tens of millions of dollars in free admission each year; champions varied learning styles and approaches; and is a voice for diversity, equity and inclusion practices in the business world.

As a nature lover and scientist, her commitment to learning and conservation extends well beyond the walls of Shedd Aquarium. She has connected families and community members to Shedd’s aquatic life on the Great Lakes, in neighbourhoods across the city and in the digital world with urban outposts and immersive virtual learning experiences. 

Shedd Aquarium is a founding member of the Aquarium Conservation Partnership, and Coughlin has played a critical role in guiding this organization’s work to reduce global plastic waste and advance the protection of marine sanctuaries. In 2017, as a leader in this partnership, she was a member of the US. delegation to the Our Ocean Conference in Malta where she represented 19 US aquariums in the commitment to eliminate the use of single-use plastics across business operations.

Dr Bridget Coughlin

Before joining Shedd, Dr Coughlin served as vice president of strategic partnerships and programs and adjunct curator at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science (DMNS). At DMNS, she was responsible for education, programmes, external partnerships, membership and fundraising for the 115-year-old institution.

There, she led the creation of a globally recognized health exhibit and established a community-focused National Institute of Health-funded Genetics of Taste Lab. She was the driving force and lead on the museum’s 126,000 square foot expansion that opened in 2014 and added massive state-of-the-art museum collection space, early childhood education, community and innovative temporary gallery spaces.

Shedd Aquarium on the shore of Lake Michigan
Shedd Aquarium on the shore of Lake Michigan, Chicago

Prior to DMNS, she spent five years with the National Academy of Sciences, where she served as managing editor of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. She has also led research teams funded by the National Institutes of Health, Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory.

Shedd Aquarium’s Centennial Commitment

Shedd Aquarium is currently preparing for the next hundred years, having revealed its $500 million Centennial Commitment earlier this year.

This eight-year, multi-layered effort will prepare the Aquarium for its next 100 years by accelerating access and connection to nature for all, and amplifying ways to care for and conserve to ensure an equitable, sustainable, and thriving future for people and aquatic life. This will involve transformational changes to the visitor experience, educational programmes, animal care, research and conservation, and to the Aquarium’s role in Chicago and around the world.

Polar Play Zone at Shedd Aquarium

The concept of the Commitment grew from conversations among the leadership when Coughlin arrived at Shedd in 2017. Coughlin and her team saw Shedd’s 100th birthday in 2030 as the ideal marker for such an auspicious plan.

Sharing science

A Colorado native, Dr Coughlin holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from Knox College, a doctorate in biochemistry from the University of Iowa and an executive scholar certificate in finance from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.

 “For me, science is inextricably linked to sharing science,” she says, speaking to blooloop. “I grew up in Colorado, and spent a tremendous amount of time outside, both in structured play, organised hikes, soccer, skiing, and then free-ranging play, just being outside and digging and exploring and meandering without purpose or intent.”

Rockhopper Penguins at Shedd Aquarium

“So, I think that just instils that you are a caretaker of nature, an observer of nature, and not separate from nature. At its very essence, that is what many natural history museums, planetariums, aquariums, zoos, and even art museums, attempt to do: communicate that we are one with, not separate from, and yet we wield an inordinate influence on nature.

“It’s not unlike what Aunt May says to Spiderman: ‘with great power, there must also come great responsibility.’”

Responsibility to nature

We have to approach that responsibility, she stresses, with the view that we are of nature, not dominant to it.

After school, Coughlin gravitated towards biochemistry, learning about nature at the molecular level.

“At the National Academy of Sciences, I realised I didn’t want to be a scientist that generates new science or puts forth new scientific endeavours and began to move towards people coming around science, whether it be at a museum to connect and explore, or through the National Academy, in a more public, civic context.”

Kids in Amazon Rising exhibit at Shedd Aquarium

She adds:

“I oscillate between highly extroverted and highly introverted, but I do them in big swaths of time. For many years, while I was getting my doctorate and doing some postgraduate stuff, I wore a lab coat and didn’t talk to anybody. Now I spend my whole day meeting interesting people, talking and listening.”

Coming to Shedd Aquarium

Coughlin started at the Shedd Aquarium in 2016. She says:

“It’s a remarkable place. Architecturally, it’s remarkable; one of the civic architectural pillars of Chicago, in our historic galleries. We were really early into doing conservation research out in the field. And so we have some really incredible longitudinal data sets about sharks, grouper, conch, iguanas, and migratory fish of the great lakes – what we call affectionately the third coast in the United States. Those Great Lakes have lots of shoreline.”

Black tip reef sharks

Commenting on her appointment, she says:

“I think what resonated with the board and the hiring committee is my passion for connecting people to that natural world. There is a deep obligation to do that in an urban setting like Chicago. It’s not like the Rocky Mountains, or on the cliffs of Scotland.

“And then there was what my team would call my never-ending geekiness about the science.”

A unique mission

She demonstrates this:

“I learned this thing about fish yesterday. If you ever see a river fish, and it has a huge forehead, like a melon, almost, but fish-size, you know that fish spends a tremendous amount of its life swimming against a strong current and that the bulbous head helps it conserve energy simply by balancing. Just by observing its physiology, you know, part of that fish’s journey.

“I brought a love of nature, of connecting people to that, and of exploring deeper the biology of that nature. We want people, of course, to be apoplectically excited to conserve, rather than guilted into it; rather than fatalistic.”

young girl in Polar Play Zone_Shedd Aquarium

It is easy to be overwhelmed by the magnitude of the challenges to conservation.

“Museums, aquariums and zoos have a more fully-understood social contract. We had to help our communities through the pandemic,” she comments:

“We have to live more fully in a socially unjust world, and right that, regardless of our mission; then we have to live our unique mission, whether it be exploring the art world, or catalysing excitement to conserve the natural world. It’s an effective social contract that will be very interesting for museums and aquariums moving forward.”

Serving the community at Shedd Aquarium

Coughlin doesn’t feel she brought innovations to Shedd Aquarium, as such:

“What I brought is a lot of harnessing of others. Shedd Aquarium is an incredibly successful organisation, regardless of what matrix you decide to rank as success: attendance, financial balance sheet, our number of research publications, our school impacts; we see 70% of all Chicago public schools every year.

“I don’t think I brought innovation. I think I brought stitching in order to connect all those. And then of course, whenever you connect something, it is synergistic, not additive. That, at least, is what we’re hoping for.”

Young American Alligator

Addressing the key functions of an aquarium like this now, she says:

“I think it is to live daily in recognition of the obligation of those three societal pillars. Much of our Centennial commitment is anchored on the economic scaffolding and the economic opportunity of our neighbours.

“We always want to say we’re in service to the community. We live in community, and we have, I think, really professed that social contract of being in community in the Centennial commitment strategic endeavour.”

A need to connect

As soon as the Aquarium was able to reopen post-lockdown, people flooded back. She says:

“There is a yearning, emotionally and cognitively, to connect with the natural; to connect with life. We are social beings, and for that period we had not been allowed to be social. That doesn’t have to mean being social with humans. That truly means social in a broader, multi-species sense.”

Children looking at dolphins

There is, too, a more future-focused obligation:

“We have to go to bed daily saying, okay, did I help my community? Did I help people connect with the natural world? We have to identify what that role is, particularly now in a pandemic or post-pandemic environment, and then have we given them some tools, some roadmap, to catalyse that empathy for animals to action.”

That empathy to action first involves an emotional commitment:

“You don’t get to people’s hands through their head.”

The democratisation of science

Coughlin started her museum career as a curator:

“When I was in Washington, DC and the Denver Museum of Nature and Science called, I literally thought they had a wrong number. I thought a curator was someone who wore a polyester suit and told people not to touch the art.”

Even the genesis of the word lends itself to this interpretation:

“To curate means to guard. We think of it as meaning someone who guards the artefacts, the knowledge.”

Underwater Beauty exhibit at Shedd Aquarium

In the modern world, this is redundant:

“At the dinner table with my 16-year-old, we had a question about Bighorn sheep and rams. So, of course, he said ‘I’m going to find out.’

“He knows how to do that; he knows about primary and tertiary resources, and when to trust Wikipedia. There has been a democratisation of science, and of knowledge in general. That means that museums are no longer the sage on the stage. Whether we abdicated it or whether it was taken from us, we now live in a co-created, democratised world. The more fully we can embrace that, the more fully successful everything will be.”

Staying on-mission

“Shedd Aquarium’s Centennial Commitment started years ago,” explains Coughlin. “We made a couple of commitments to ourselves, the #OneShedd team, from trustees to the guest relations team, to long-tenured staff, to new staff, that we wanted a couple of things to occur.

“One, we changed the language of our mission to be more intentionally verb-based: to encourage compassion, curiosity, and conservation for the aquatic animal world. We also committed that we did not want to be bound by our single address on the museum campus in Chicago, Illinois.”

Main entrance at Shedd Aquarium

“We have had tendrils for ages. We’ve had a research vessel down in The Bahamas and in the Florida Keys for decades. For decades we’ve been doing research on the Great Lakes. We’ve been out in the community, with field trips coming to us and us going to the schools. However, we wanted to amplify that. We also wanted to be more fully intentional with our digital platform.”

The aspiration is complete coverage.

“We wanted a here, there and everywhere approach,” she explains. “Here in Chicago; there in the community, and everywhere in the digital space. We wanted to do it for people, for communities, and for aquatic animals. We redefined where we wanted to be, who we were in service to, and why we were doing it. The ‘why’, of course, is the language within our mission.”

Shedd Aquarium pilots the Centennial Commitment

The next step was to do some pilots:

“We tried to get some entrepreneurial DNA in the organisation. Often, organisations pilot, everything works out reasonably well, and they scale it.

“In this case, and I applaud the organisation for it, we piloted, failed, and re-tried. We were honest about it and we kept our humour. We gave ourselves a sense of grace, we iterated and got some entrepreneurial DNA; some idea of how to do things.”

Beluga Whales

“Then we started to scale and crescendo things that we could see would link to this intent to be digitally relevant; in community and nature; onsite.

“We reached a point where we were ready to bring the rest of the world onto the journey more intentionally. So, we announced that Centennial Commitment, focused first on the renovation of the historic galleries, the elevation of learning classrooms and learning commons and a suite of new programmes.”

Working with young people

Additionally, she says:

“To have a digital strategy piloted and tested when a pandemic hit was really helpful. We sort of reverse-engineered the Centennial Commitment from identifying what we wanted. We wanted it to be not just successful, but to be a cause, be a movement, be a catalyst for action. And we wanted to do it not just with those who can come on-site, but with a global community.

“We said: ‘Let’s pin that to our hundredth anniversary in the year 2030, and let’s reverse engineer all the steps we have to do up until that point. And let’s start now.’

“We have a wonderful high school programme called Shedd Academy. For four years, we are embedded in schools, so all freshmen, juniors and sophomores can take an elective. Can you imagine how much more fun our high school experience would have been if we could have taken a marine biology class taught by like a world-renowned aquarist?”

Young girl looks at fish Shedd Aquarium

“We will continue to scale programmes like Shedd Academy, like our immersive kayaking experience,  Kayak for Conservation, focused on inspiring and empowering stewardship of the Chicago River. It’s both a naturalist programme and concerned with rewilding that urban corridor with biomass.

“Those programmes will keep scaling, meaning more acres of habitat restored, and more programmes launched.”

Renovations planned for Shedd Aquarium

In about a year, parts of the historic galleries will be closed down for renovation. Additionally:

“We will be improving the experience for the animals, giving them much bigger habitats, and much more complex ecosystems to thrive in. We’re allowing the public in these new gallery spaces to commune with the animals in completely different ways.

“Here at Shedd Aquarium, we want people to use all their five senses. We want them to hear the gulping of an arapaima when it eats: arapaima eat by sucking. They literally have almost a piston-like stomach that pulls the food in and makes a tremendously disgusting gulping noise. We want them to see bioluminescence; we want them to taste flights of salt water.”

Great Lakes Exhibit Shedd Aquarium

Many of the Aquarium’s guests, she explains, have never had a chance to plunge into the ocean:

“All oceans do not taste the same. The salinity and acidity alter. When the Great Lakes dump into the ocean, the water is brackish water. We want people to really commune, so that, again, they become one with the natural world, not a conqueror of the natural world. It’s going to be amazing.”

She urges:

“Come to Shedd Aquarium now, and then come again in about five years. Come in between, because we’re going to have some systematic openings throughout.”

New habitats

In terms of conservation programmes, she comments:

“Sadly, we don’t see an end to us needing to commit increasing resources and time for that. Part of our Centennial Commitment is to provide some new habitats. So, when fish and wildlife need us, which happens because of confiscations from O’Hare airport, the illegal food trade, the illegal pet trade, or an animal out in the wild in crisis, there is an opportunity for them to come and get rehabilitated; have a forever home at Shedd.”

Sea Otter

Training additional staff is another part:

“We have sent staff to Alaska many times to help get a stranded beluga back with its pod. The technical expertise that they learn on site is fully translated to when they go and help our partners.”

An optimistic outlook

Coughlin is optimistic, despite the challenges facing the natural world. She explains:

“I’m a hundred percent optimistic. You have to give yourself doses of positivity to remain that way. You have to be optimistic in the manner Sylvia Earle and Jane Goodall might be.”

Weedy Seadragons Shedd Aquarium

“Firstly, you have to be optimistic in the macro sense, because there is no other way. There is no alternative, literally, for life. And then, secondly, on a micro-scale, I’m optimistic because I see it working in tiny ways. I see guests coming in and asking, ‘How do I change this? Who is my Congressman, so I can write to them?’

“I see the children haranguing their parents because they didn’t sort their trash and their compost properly at our restaurant. In my generation, we nagged our parents to buckle their seatbelts. Now that is a non-issue. I see the pressure the next generation is putting on, and how seriously they are taking it, and how relentless they are.

“Conservation is not a convenience; it is not an economic privilege for the next generation. It is a moral imperative, it is innate. We need to listen to them, and we simply need to get out of their way.”

All images ©Shedd Aquarium/Brenna Hernandez

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Lalla Merlin

Lead Features Writer Lalla studied English at St. Hugh’s College, Oxford University. A writer and film-maker, she lives in rural Devon with husband, children, and an assortment of badly-behaved animals, including an enormous but friendly wolf.

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