Shedd Aquarium’s recent announcement of its $500 million Centennial Commitment has revealed the excitement, anticipation, and complex planning that are permeating every aspect of the Chicago, Ill., institution. 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 and conserve to ensure an equitable, sustainable, and thriving future for people and aquatic life.”
The path to those goals involves making transformational changes to the visitor experience; educational programs; animal care; research and conservation; and to the Aquarium’s role in Chicago and around the world.
The idea for the Commitment grew from conversations among the leadership when President and Chief Executive Officer Dr. Bridget Coughlin arrived at Shedd in 2017.
“We were very successful in many dimensions—financially, in animal care and welfare, with scientific publications, and with admissions. But I absolutely applaud the staff and the board who said, ‘We can do more.’”
With a shared desire to go “from success to impact,” Coughlin and her team saw Shedd’s 100th birthday in 2030 as the ideal marker for such an auspicious plan.
“We wanted to move beyond our walls—here, there, and everywhere—with a greater emphasis on conservation. For me, at the very essence of this plan, it’s about connecting more people, more deeply with animals. People will not save what they don’t feel connected to, and we need to connect them in a more meaningful way, so they are called to take action.”
The team has spent the past five years and five million dollars on piloting and testing new programs; and multiple renovation projects will begin later this year.
The Centennial Commitment will be funded by financial reserves, a prudent draw from the endowment, and fundraising, according to Coughlin. Initial support has already come from several foundations and corporations, including Bank of America.
“The Bank has a 40-year history of supporting the Shedd and we have a shared commitment of investing in Chicago,” said John Hesselmann, Bank of America’s former national head of health care, education, and not-for-profit practice. “I joined Shedd’s Board four years ago, and I was extremely impressed by the vastness of this project and the impact I thought it would have. It will serve as an economic driver to the city and help to close the academic and opportunity gap. It fits so many of the boxes where the Bank wants to put emphasis. I feel grateful that Chicago has an institution that is so intentional about the future of the city and the planet.”
Renovations will blend the old and the new, with the preservation of the grand staircase leading to the Beaux Arts Building; the opening of the building’s original 30-foot windows; and the redesign of the accessible entrance to become part of a dynamic and welcoming pavilion. Increased accessibility throughout the Aquarium is also a priority.
“Our original building was built in 1930, and the additions since then have included lots of level changes, which require elevator, escalator, and stairs,” said Sarah Hezel, vice president of design and exhibits. “The new entrance is just feet away from two escalators … and new ramping navigation will provide accessibility all the way through the visitor experience, from the enhanced entry through the historic level to the stunning tunnel on the mezzanine.”
Students in Shedd’s educational programs will appreciate a relocation of the classrooms from the basement to a new, centralized Learning Commons on the main floor.
“It is symbolic that we’re moving learning from the basement,” said Lisa Junkin Lopez, vice president of learning and community. “It symbolizes [to the students] that learning matters, they matter, and this place matters. The learning we foster at Shedd puts children in the driver’s seat to build their sense of agency to come up with solutions for the future.”
She hopes the Learning Commons will also become a welcoming meeting space for conservation organizations and individuals involved in environmental justice.
Additional educational advancements will include an enhanced slate of digital programs to take learning into homes and classrooms around the world; and reinvigorated gardens surrounding the Aquarium that will serve as accessible, living classrooms at the juncture of land and water.
The breadth of the physical renovation plan is daunting, but Hezel looks forward to what’s on the other side of the demolition and construction.
“This is an incredible puzzle of a project … and to surgically make changes to a historic building is an art and a science,” she said. “For me, the most exciting part is being able to honor this incredible building on an iconic site, and make it fully accessible, immersive, and engaging for our whole community.”
Shedd’s unshakeable commitment to the well-being of aquatic life in managed care and in the wild will be supported by redesigned exhibits and lab configurations, as well as more intentional cross-disciplinary collaboration among the staff.
“We continue to learn and evolve how we care for animals, and this is an opportunity to build new habitats with greater animal welfare in mind because our commitment to them is for as long as they live,” said Peggy Sloan, chief animal operations officer. For example, the arapaima in the Amazon Rising exhibit that were six inches long when they arrived at Shedd are now more than six feet. The redesigned exhibit will contain triple the water volume to accommodate their continued growth.
Bringing five major labs into close proximity to create a new Science Hub will spur innovation, according to Dr. Chuck Knapp, vice president of conservation research. And the related decisions to combine animal care, animal health, and conservation research into one division, and to add a number of conservation biologists to the team also facilitates more mutually beneficial partnerships.
“Being in the same division leads to shared goals and more continuous contact; and enables us to use our scientific team’s knowledge to maximize the skill sets within animal care and animal health in the field,” said Knapp.
Sloan agrees and offers the example of Shedd’s work on coral reefs.
“Samples collected from the field have to be analyzed here in our lab. That research includes figuring out how to grow corals for outplanting, so we worked with our animal care team to create a plan and ways to grow them. We can accelerate the science by collecting, sequencing, and figuring out outplanting because we have assets in our team in one location.”
Dr. Bill Van Bonn, DVM, vice president of animal health, is looking forward to a modernization of Shedd’s hospital that will result in better flow and have built-in space contingencies to support new technologies as they become available. He also praises the Science Hub configuration that facilitates closer working relationships with colleagues in the field.
“Speaking as a clinical veterinarian, you cannot provide care to an animal unless you understand it, and you can’t get all that information studying animals in situ. With an animal that lives in a modern facility you have access all the time. When you do both, and share the information, you can do better in understanding and caring for the animal. The Science Hub serves as a capacity multiplier. In my experience, it’s unique.”
Shedd has long had a presence in the community, and plans include increasing that presence while encouraging more citizens’ active involvement in learning about and solving environmental issues.
“We’ve been working with a partner, Urban Rivers, to install floating wetlands on the north branch of the Chicago River,” said Knapp. “In order to ramp up for the Centennial Commitment, we did a series of pilot programs, and the Kayak for Conservation Program was one of the pilots that worked really well. It’s been an opportunity to engage the community in science—to get people out there to help us with trash removal and surveys. We’re working on expanding our efforts to the south branch, where we’ll also involve the community.”
Junkin Lopez, who hopes to create a living laboratory in urban nature spaces, is focusing on equity and access in the community. “There are two challenges for youth—equitable access to educational opportunities and to nature. We want all people in Chicago to have access, but we’re not reaching everyone. We’ll do this through a vastly expanded portfolio of programs in schools and in nearby nature spaces. The key to our strategy is to work in partnership with youth development organizations, schools, and workforce development organizations and to figure out how we leverage one another’s superpowers.”
The Centennial Commitment is projected to have an economic impact on the city: Shedd’s current economic impact is approximately $360 million annually and following this transformation, the expected economic impact will exceed $410 million annually. It will create more than 2,000 jobs in Illinois. And Shedd’s leaders plan to award contracts to diverse vendors; and most onsite labor work hours to Chicago residents, with a set percentage devoted to minority and female workers—decisions that underscore the Aquarium’s dedication to community growth and advancement.
“This is a very complex and technically challenging plan,” said Coughlin. “The excitement in Chicago has been electrifying, and our team is really energized. They take the significance of this work to heart.”
With numerous projects in varying stages of development and eight years to go, the shared vision of “a world thriving with aquatic life that is sustained by people who love, understand, and protect it” is a profound motivator for everyone involved.