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A Brief History of Public Aquariums

Earth, land and water make up our environment and the most mysterious of these is water. Aquariums are our invitation to enjoy the world beneath our waters and to explore its magic and mystery. The earliest aquarium was opened in 1853 as part of London Zoo, which had been established by the Zoological Society of London in 1828. Before this aquarium opened, there  had been only "aquatic vivariums" and this is the first use of the now familiar term" aquarium".

In New York, an aquarium had opened as part of Barnum’s American Museum in 1856, one of its aquatic life specimens being a large white whale. Unfortunately this establishment was destroyed in a spectacular fire and the fate of the aquarium and its inhabitants in these circumstances is not known. Many other aquariums opened in the following years, including Boston 1859, Paris 1860, Vienna 1860, Hamburg [an aquarium as part of the zoo], and Washington in 1873.

Many of these aquariums were sited near to the coast for the sake of easier water supplies. The Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, built in 1929, actually used the railway to transport its water which was carried in specially designed trucks. This was the largest aquarium in the world until the construction of the Georgia aquarium in 2005.

In recent years, the experience of visitors to aquariums has become more intense as a result of developments which, not only enable them to look closely at the variety of marine life they have on display, but transport them to a place where they could actually feel that they themselves are below the water. In 1984 the Monterey Bay aquarium built a 10metre high viewing tank and the following year, Kelly Tarlton’s Underwater World in Auckland, New Zealand, was the first to introduce an acrylic tunnel into its aquarium to give their visitors the feeling of being a part of the below the surface scene.

Going back to the UK, where it all began, the City of Hull, which in the past was a major fishing port, commissioned the eminent architect Sir Terry Farrell to build an aquarium to celebrate the Millennium. Opening in 2002, it received its 1 millionth visitor after only 14 months and 22, 000 students attended last year. The London Zoo aquarium is still going strong and has now a "Big Fish Tank" where it houses marine fish that have grown too large for their private owners to cope with in a domestic situation.

All aquariums have moved on from the days when their function was to satisfy the curious. They now play a vital role in the conservation or marine life, research and education while offering a fascinating experience of marine life below the waterline. Long may our aquariums continue to inspire us with wonder with what lies in the planet’s water worlds and may our wonder lead us to respect and conserve its many aquatic animals.

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