New Ocean Hall reels in tourists

Take two breaths. One of those breaths came from the ocean’s oxygen.

This and other bits of aquatic information can be found at the Sant Ocean Hall in the National Museum of Natural History. The new hall is the result of the largest renovation effort in the museum’s history, and its completion drew an estimated 34,000 visitors to the 24,000-square-foot exhibit’s opening day on Saturday.

“They opened the doors and people flooded in,” said Jim Butz, a museum volunteer on the exhibit’s opening day, which also featured Hawaiian dancers and Alaskan American Indians.

Splashed with shades of blue, the exhibit welcomes visitors with a passage: “the ocean is a global system essential to all life – including yours,” as they enter a network of displays and multimedia features.

Through the exhibit galleries, the museum exposes the ocean’s composition and history from its fossil stages to present-day conditions, featuring more than 80 million marine specimens from oceans around the globe. One of the most intriguing is a 24-foot-long giant squid suspended in 1,800 gallons of clear liquid.

Carole Baldwin, curator of the fishes and ocean exhibit, said it provides a service since there was previously a lack of information available to the public about the ocean – something she said is crucial to everyday life.

“You don’t live in the ocean,” Baldwin said. “But you need one to live.”

Built in conjunction with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Sant Ocean Hall has been a work in progress for five years, after the Sants, a family of local philanthropists, donated $15 million.

Judy Cleghorn, a tourist from Washington state who visited the exhibit on vacation with her husband, said the size of Ocean Hall impressed her.

“I love the feel of it once you walk in,” Cleghorn said as she took a moment to pause from taking pictures of the exhibit’s preserved marine life specimens.

In the center of the exhibit, a 45-foot replica of one of the few existing North Atlantic Right whales, named Phoenix, hangs from the vaulted ceilings over tourists’ heads.

This monumental project opens in the midst of several renovation efforts within the Smithsonian Institution network of museums, including a massive, two-year renovation of the American History Museum, scheduled to reopen in November.

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