Monday, April 12, 2010

Why I feel the Monterey Bay Aquarium's new exhibit is damaging to children and, consequently, their mission of ocean conservation

Isaac could hardly wait to see the flamingos. In the world of animal cool, tall pink birds standing on one leg are solidly in the range of “very” for my boy.

And there they were. A couple anyway, visible on occasion over the heads of the spring break crowd. And a couple of spoonbills – equally cool. And a scarlet ibis or two. The rosy feathers of them all announcing the nature's proclamation on fashion – gaudy is IN.

I didn't point out to him the water mark painted on the glass denoting the predicted water level in the near distant future that towered well over the noisy group gathered to capture these birds on their iphones.

Then there was the graveyard. An animated video spoke about the calamitous fates of various sea creatures while all around it were “tomb stones” etched with names like “sea anemone,” as if we'd accidentally wandered into a suburban Halloween display.

Isaac stood staring at the short loop of a wall-sized film about the domino disasters surrounding the lifestyle of the Inuit people and their natural resources three times through and would have stayed for goddess knows how much longer if I hadn't pulled him away. “Did you understand that?” I queried. “No.” he told me, and I did my best to fill in a few elements I felt comfortable enough explaining.

There were also some penguins. Isaac took note, but he can visit the ones on permanent exhibit upstairs most any time. There was the cow with the gas mask and the note about biofuel - relatively amusing and positive.

More screens flashed at us and pronouncements of doom writ large (literally) along the narrow passageways before we got to the two sea turtles swimming back and forth in an unadorned tank and Isaac whined that he was hungry.

Here is how the aquarium's webpage bills their newest exhibit which they've titled “Hot Pink Flamingo”: “Amazing animals will capture your heart in our new 7,000-foot special exhibition. Take a trip through our galleries—and across the globe—and discover how climate change is affecting ocean life. Along the way, you'll meet people and communities who are reducing their carbon pollution, and learn about the small changes we can all make to help the oceans.”

Hmm. Did we see the same thing? Cuz what I experienced had little to do with flamingos, or capturing anyone's heart. We've determined that I'm not against things political. Yet, when I view this from the perspective of a five-year-old, as best I can, I see the potential for instilling fear, confusion, hopelessness, resignation. Come to think of it, when I look at it from the perspective of a 40-year-old, I see potential for instilling, let's see, fear, confusion, hopelessness, resignation...

My son needs to fall madly in love with flamingos. Period. Step one in his generation saving anything. He's five. He does not need messages about drowning polar bears just yet. He can't do anything about it. And what he can do, believe me, he does. I have picked up more nasty garbage because my son has guilted me into it than I care to remember right now.

I feel strongly that the beloved world-class aquarium in our backyard as slipped off the track on this one.

So what is the solution? PG-13 aquarium exhibits? I don't think so. But I feel like before we can solve our planet's problems, we have to get together on how to talk about this.

I have more to say on the college-aged perspective after teaching “environmental creative writing” last semester, but, for now, enough. To be continued...?


bobbie said...

A different perspective for me. We whose children are so far beyond five have forgotten the five year old point of view. Thanks for reminding me.

Jenny-Sayre Ramberg said...

Dear Kitty,
I’m so glad that Isaac enjoyed the flamingos and the other birds. I hope he got a chance to see the coral reef too.

Thanks for starting the conversation about kids and climate change. I’m a Mom too. My little girl is just 18 months old and she was born while I was working on this exhibition. Her favorite place in the Aquarium is Splash Zone even though she enjoys looking at the new pink birds too. I wholeheartedly agree that what she and Isaac need most are opportunities to fall madly in love with the wonders of nature. It’s not their job to understand or solve the problems of climate change. That’s up to us and their grandparents—the ones who can vote and speak up.

I’m sorry that you feel we’ve slipped off the track with Hot Pink Flamingos. We want to engage adults and teens in a conversation about the oceans and climate change, and share our hope and a vision for how we can work together for a better future for our Isaacs and Sophias. I hope you’ll have a chance to come back and see the inspiring stories about people and communities that are acting to reduce carbon pollution and the great comments visitors are leaving for each other about what their schools, neighborhoods and businesses are doing.

I wholeheartedly believe that we can make a better future if we reduce carbon pollution now by moving away from fossil fuels. I’d love to hear more from you about what makes you feel hopeful that we can make a difference for our children and the oceans.

Thanks for your wonderful blog,
Jenny-Sayre Ramberg
Monterey Bay Aquarium

Kitty said...


Thanks for reading and for commenting. Y'all are quick over there! I wondered if the post would get seen...

I hope you also read my follow-up post to this one. It talks about modes of delivering info and a few other things. I am really glad to hear that you have a strong hope in the future. I wish I could see that as more obvious from the exhibit.

Congratulations on your daughter. I'd be very curious to hear how your view of presentations like this exhibit might change when Sophia is a little older and taking the world around her in differently.

When our children are aware enough to take in pieces of difficult subjects, or any subjects for that matter (and we can't know exactly what parts they do take away), but not mature enough to understand it all outside of themselves or make sense of it in their growing brains, then I believe damage can occur if we don't have the chance to guide them or dole things out in appropriate proportions.

Of course, not every exhibit needs a slide and a craft room, but after sharks and jellies and seahorses and river otters, I was unprepared for what this one brought to my child's eyes and mind.

Also, I felt sad at the reliance on screens which have the potential to upstage the animals. The layout of the exhibit didn't seem to allow for much choice in terms of what to view.

If you have any official online or in-person discussions on these topics, please let me know as I'd be happy to participate, (although I will be out of town for a couple weeks so if I'm quiet, that's why).

Thanks again, Kitty

Jenny Sayre said...

Dear Kitty,
Thanks for your thoughtful response. I like your idea of discussions, we've been having them for staff and volunteers but I don't know if there are plans to have discussions for the members or anyone else who might be interested. We always welcome comments and discussion on our website. We really do want the exhibit to work for people and are eager to hear what you think would make it better.

Personally, this was one of the hardest exhibitions I've worked on--climate change is complex, overwhelming and abstract. It was a lot more fun to work on Splash Zone! I'd love to hear more about the ways that you think we can get our friends, family and neighbors talking about what we can all do to slow carbon pollution down and give ocean animals and people time to adapt to the changes that are happening to the ocean and the climate. Give me a call at the Aquarium if you have time when you get back.
thanks and have a great trip!

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