Shedd Aquarium announces Centennial Commitment, an 8-year transformation, revitalization plan
The venerable cultural institution on Monday announced a $500 million transformation of the aquarium culminating in 2030, the Shedd’s 100th anniversary.
Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium is about to make a big splash — over the next eight years.
The venerable cultural institution on Monday announced its Centennial Commitment, a $500 million transformation of the aquarium culminating in 2030, the Shedd’s 100th anniversary.
The first phase, which covers major interior renovations, begins later this year, with a projected finish date of 2026. Phase two will begin shortly thereafter. The aquarium will remain open throughout the project’s duration.
The project will transform much of the Shedd’s mission, both onsite and across the Chicago area — on the water, in nature and in field-based research. It will include taking a deeper dive into serving Chicago school students with enhanced programming and outreach; creating a modern and revitalized aquarium experience through interactive and immersive exhibits, and increasing the Shedd’s commitment to respond to the needs of wildlife crises across the globe via research and science.
The last major transformations of the Shedd were the construction of the Oceanarium (added in 1991) and the Wild Reef (opened in 2003). The aquarium’s current 450,000 square-foot footprint will not increase.
Much of the project’s budget is earmarked for the first phase, which will update the interior of the iconic original Beaux Arts building, including modernizing the original six historic galleries, enhancing all animal habitats, restoring the original walls of windows that at one time provided unobstructed views of the Chicago skyline and the lake, and revamping the public spaces and general amenities.
“We have thousands of species in those historical galleries and we are exalting their biology, giving them larger habitats in which to swim and making the experience more participatory, so it’s really a revitalization of their habitats and the way we bring them to the public,” said Dr. Bridget C. Coughlin, president and CEO of the aquarium.
Other major changes in the historic gallery area include moving the science and education labs to the main floor, relocating the gift shop to the main entrance area, and creating a new tunnel connecting the aquarium to the Oceanarium. The tunnel will culminate in a glass-enclosed, 190,000-gallon, 35-foot-long habitat that will surround patrons as they walk “under the sea.”
“It will feel like you’re scuba diving without a tank, and instead of seeing the animals in just one place, you’ll see them from all directions around you,” Coughlin said.
The beloved Caribbean Reef, the 90,000-gallon home to more than 500 tropical animals where patrons can view daily feedings of the animals by divers, also will be transformed, though specific details are not yet available.
There will also be more coherent circulation between the buildings, said Meghan Curran, the aquarium’s chief marketing and experience officer. “There will be more space for guests to sit and decompress and plan their day, so we’re opening up the main foyer with new seating areas. We will be looking at improving and restoring our north terrace, but no new food areas will be added. Enhancements to restrooms, quiet rooms, will be made. Probably the biggest transformation will be made on the north side of the building, where we’ll be transforming that with expansive habitats, more interactive and immersive experiences.”
Coughlin said much of the physical transformations are designed to heighten the experiential aspects of a visit. One such experiences under consideration, for example, is a tasting station.
“Imagine walking through a gallery and there is a station with tiny water glasses where you can taste the salinity of oceans from around the world. You can experience what it tastes like when the Great Lakes, through the St. Lawrence Seaway, flow into the ocean. You can taste what the deep sea hydrothermal vents of Hawaii taste like. You will be able to commune with the animals through your five senses, you will understand their biology and be part of their world.”
Designed by the architectural firm of Graham, Anderson, Probst & White, the John G. Shedd aquarium was built in 1929 and opened a year later. It is the third-largest aquarium in the world, boasting 5 million gallons of water. More than 25,000 aquatic animals representing more than 1,100 species call the aquarium home.
Nearly 1.9 million people have visited the Shedd each year for the past two decades (except for the 2020 pandemic shutdown) and the institution drives nearly $360 million in annual economic impact to the city.
“We are the most attended cultural facility in Chicago,” Coughlin said. “We see more patrons than the Art institute, the Field Museum and the Museum of Science and Industry and we do it in less square footage. We are trying to have our square footage work harder for us, and part of the revitalization will be a new circulation path to make the flow of your visit more seamless, with fewer transitions,” Coughlin said.
Recently instituted time-stamped ticketing has proven to be a game-changer in terms of managing capacity, and will continue for the foreseeable future.
The entire project is a joint venture of Chicago-based general contractor partners Pepper/BMI Construction LLC, architect Valerio Dewalt Train, exhibit design partner Thinc Design, project manager JLL (Jones Lang LaSalle), accessibility partner Institute for Human Centered Design, and diversity, equity and inclusion partner Trinal Inc. According to an aquarium spokesperson, the emphasis will also be on hiring local, with jobs preference given to residents in Chicago’s 4th Ward (home to the aquarium) and the nearby neighborhoods of Douglas, Grand Boulevard, Hyde Park, Kenwood, North Kenwood, Oakland and the South Loop.
“We wanted diversity and inclusion to be part of the DNA of this project from day one. This includes a subset [of minority- and women-owned subcontractors and businesses] that will come from our local ward, our local talent. The aquarium is their backyard and we want them to be part of this process,” Coughlin said.
“For many of our guests, we are their ocean experience, we are their connection to a broader world. So we are asking everyone to be global citizens.”