Despite best efforts, many public aquariums suffered decades of technical shortcomings that impacted on animal welfare levels. High animal mortality rates were routinely countered with seasonal restocking (Reid, 2001).
Matters improved at the end of the twentieth century when well-run research aquariums and institutes with stable tank ecologies and healthy stock became models for mainstream reinventions. Public aquariums with improved husbandry regimes could now respond to critical public voices and prioritise an emerging conservation agenda.
New generation aquariums like the Monterey Bay Aquarium (1984) used acrylic not glass for its vast tanks because of superior light transmission, insulation and flexibility. Today, all large-scale aquariums feature acrylic tunnels to surround their visitors with water and fishes, achieving what has been called ‘immersion exhibitry’ (Reid, 2001).
Tanks are also used backstage for “mimetic experimentation” (Golinsky, 2005 p.98). This is where aquarium-centred conservation and restoration projects faithfully imitate natural ecosystems. One example is that of the Horniman Museum Aquarium’s behind-the-scenes work on captive coral breeding. This involves simulating ecosystem data gathered from wild reefs in Fiji and Guam.
Temperature and moonshine are tracked, transmitted then replicated in the aquarium’s research tanks in Forest Hill, South London. In this way, Horniman aquarists are now observing the complexity and fragility of a wild reality in controlled backstage conditions. Posting this aquarium research and breeding success online means that for the first time, the public are able to observe off-display lab tanks in a virtual way.