116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Home / Arts & Entertainment / Things To Do
Ocean creatures tell tales in new Dubuque exhibit
The National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium’s new $1.3 million Rivers to the Sea exhibit opened Friday
I was standing in front of a wall of dynamic blue, a sapphire glow reflecting onto the notebook in my hands. Several fish darted through the water; others swam lazily in groups. A mere inches away, a porcupine puffer fish pressed its face against the glass, gazing at me with wide, curious eyes.
Above the tank stretched a mural of a pastel sky, dotted with pelicans and offshore wind turbines. An oil platform towers in the distance — and another was replicated in the room around me. Steel supports were painted onto columns, sporting artificial reefs full of coral and starfish. Brush strokes brought alive an underwater scene of sharks, turtles and whales.
A year ago, the space was just a concrete wall. Now, it’s a piece of the Gulf of Mexico recreated in the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium in Dubuque — all in the name of environmental storytelling and conservation, explained Andy Allison, the museum’s vice president of living collections and education.
“Everything we do impacts everything else,” he said. “We just want people to be aware of that.”
The 45,000 gallon aquarium, the largest on campus, is one of 12 new tanks that make up the museum’s new $1.3 million Rivers to the Sea exhibit that opened to the public Friday.
Five separate sections represent marine ecosystems across the country that are influenced by different river systems. Walk just a few feet, and you’ll be transported from place to place in seconds. Along the way, you can learn about the global ripple effects of American waterways.
“Those rivers are conduits that will connect us to the rest of the world,” Allison said. “Some of our residents will never get a chance to see the ocean in real life, but their actions, by way of rivers, will still impact those oceans.”
The new exhibit sits on the first floor of the National River Center where three aquariums used to reside before renovation. Upon entry, you step into the Gulf of Mexico — the section with impacts closest to home, as it explains the impacts from the Mississippi River watershed that the museum itself stands upon.
A portion spotlighting the Mississippi River Delta, where the waterway converges with the Gulf of Mexico, has existed for six years and features a stingray touch tank. After eight stingrays died in December following a system malfunction, several new additions now glide through the tank.
The rays came from accredited zoos and aquariums — like most of the creatures in the entire exhibit, Allison said. Altogether, the new tanks are filled with 100 new species.
Each aspect of the Rivers to the Sea exhibit began with a plan eight years ago — a story the museum wanted to tell visitors. Construction began last September to bring the vision to reality. Now, every careful choice highlights a certain message about conservation, like invasive species, coral propagation, animal trafficking, water quality and sustainable commercial fishing.
“Those are the things that we’re trying to make people recognize — that all of our actions impact people, animals and ecosystems,” Allison said. “By putting these conservation messages everywhere, we’re trying to create a message of hope.”
Four tanks, including the 45,000-gallon aquarium, stock the Gulf of Mexico zone with sea horses, corals, eels and fish of every color of the rainbow. Just a few steps around the corner, though, and you’ve entered the North Atlantic Ocean zone that showcases impacts from the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River basin.
Moon jellyfish are delicately suspended in a cylinder tank, speckling the blue water with iridescent white blobs. Next door, a lobster cautiously emerges from an underwater cave — one of several habitats in the exhibit constructed by the museum team.
Before you know it, you’ve arrived in the next zone representing the other side of the country: the North Pacific Ocean, which the Columbia River watershed dumps into.
An aquarium wraps around the corner. If you didn’t know what to look for, you might miss the octopus — one of the exhibit’s newest occupants — pressed against the wall looking like an amorphous, maroon blob.
Across the hall, another touch tank is open. It’s filled with sea anemones, starfish and rocks that visitors can carefully feel if they dare to brave the cold water. A kelp forest sways in the exhibit nearby. Those who want a closer look at the brown blades and their bulbous stipes, or stems, can crawl into a viewing bubble under the tank.
“Your typical museum exhibit has an audience retention of 10 seconds … That’s not a lot of time to reach them with those messages that we want,” Allison said. “The touch tank, the interaction, the ability to touch an animal — these things really, really change the way that people engage with a museum.”
Around another turn, the Gulf of California zone begins. It’s associated system, the Colorado River watershed, no longer reaches the sea due to drought and water overuse in the American southwest.
A life-size sculpture of the world’s smallest porpoise and the rarest marine mammal on Earth, the vaquita, stands in front of a mural of underwater creatures shrouded in teals and blues and greens. Both pieces of art, along with the other paintings garnishing the exhibit, were completed by local artist Adam Eikamp.
The last zone, the Central Pacific Ocean, appears around the last corner in the exhibit’s circular path. It’s the only section that doesn’t directly connect to an American river system. Front and center stands a blue and orange outrigger canoe, which is a canoe with a lateral floating supports, with a country flag on its sail.
The navy, orange and white colors represent the Marshall Islands — a chain of islands across the world from Iowa but with a strong presence in Dubuque.
Local Marshallese community members constructed the canoe for the museum to represent their culture and history. It also reminds visitors of the destructive tendrils of climate change felt around the world, especially in island countries like the Marshall Islands subject to sea level rise and warming waters. Local changes can make global impact, Allison said.
“Everything about their culture is based on the islands that they had to leave,” he said. “It was the perfect connection to help us tell that story of connections.”
I could see the gleam in Allison’s eyes — and in the eyes of other staff members — as he spoke about the Rivers to the Sea exhibit he helped conceptualize, manage and finalize. It was the biggest opening he had experienced in his nine years at the museum.
Looking around at the work around him, he smiled and said, “It's good to be reminded that this is going to be a really positive exhibit for the entire community.”
“We wanted to make sure that there's no way a person can go through the exhibit and not take something away,” he said. “As long as they take one message away, we've made a difference.”
Brittney J. Miller is the Energy & Environment Reporter for The Gazette and a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues.
Comments: (319) 398-8370; firstname.lastname@example.org