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The Sant Ocean Hall is the National Museum of Natural History’s largest exhibit. With 23,000 square feet of exhibit space, it provides visitors with a unique and breathtaking introduction to the majesty of the ocean. To create this experience, the hall took over five years of planning, coordination, and construction. Want to learn how it all came together? Welcome to Building the Exhibit!

ocean hall rendering
Preliminary artistic rendering of the Sant Ocean Hall Image courtesy of: The Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History

Renovation and restoration

In the face of growing concerns about the health of the world’s oceans and the public’s lack of thorough understanding of how we depend on the ocean, Congress decided in 2003 to set aside money for a major ocean literacy initiative. Congressional staffers talked to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) about designing this initiative. NOAA staff then talked to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History about creating a large exhibit hall as part of the initiative. Since the museum is a historic building (built between 1907 and 1913), and a central halls restoration project was already underway, Smithsonian personnel were provided with an opportunity to restore historic aspects of the building as part of the creative exhibit design.

Museum staff worked with the Smithsonian’s Office of Facilities and Engineering to coordinate the renovation and restoration of the space with the design of the Ocean exhibit. This involved planning for heating and air conditioning systems, bringing in sprinklers, and including wiring for the many audio visual aspects of the exhibit. The concept was to restore the space back to its early 20th century appearance (with 54.5-foot ceilings and skylights), while simultaneously bringing it up to date for 21st century exhibit and safety standards. This process involved architects, mechanical engineers, electrical engineers, structural engineers, plumbers, fire protection experts, and security personnel, among others!

Mammal Hall
The Kenneth E. Behring Family Hall of Mammals is similar in height and structure to the Sant Ocean Hall and was renovated prior to its opening in 2003. Image courtesy of: The Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History

Who built it?

To get this process going, the museum developed separate Scope of Work statements for renovation, architectural design, demolition, moving objects, and exhibit design and fabrication. Each of these statements was a description of the job required, benchmarks that need to be met, and timelines for the work. Each statement went through several layers of approval before going out for bidding and review, a process that took about eight months.


What do visitors see in the ocean hall?

While the bidding process was going on, a Statement of Purpose team developed a grand vision for the ocean hall. According to museum guidelines for creating exhibits, Statements of Purpose are created to provide a broad overview of the Hall’s vision and goals, describe who the target audience is (generally families), and depict a bird’s eye view of the exhibit’s areas and general topics. The Statement of Purpose team answered questions such as, “What are the Hall’s objectives? What information should visitors leave with? What kinds of objects and displays will be featured in the Hall?”

Original bubble plan
This original bubble plan for the Sant Ocean Hall illustrates the main thematic areas of the exhibit. Image courtesy of: The Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History

To create a Statement of Purpose for a Hall this big (23,000 square feet), the museum sponsored several large workshops. Experts from all areas of ocean science attended, brainstorming and weighing in on important topics that should be covered. Taking all this information into consideration, the team crafted a Statement of Purpose of about 20 pages.

A team at the core

After the Statement of Purpose was approved in August of 2003, the museum assembled what it calls its “exhibit core team.” At the National Museum of Natural History, core teams are important because they shape the entire exhibit. The core team’s job is to begin pulling together the exhibit’s content, to assess the museum’s collections, and to identify any particular challenges the exhibit might face.

The ocean hall core team consisted of several scientific curators, an exhibit developer, and an educator. Its members were selected by the museum's associate director of public programs and by members of the exhibit department. It was important to choose curators to represent the various disciplines in the exhibit and to find people who could devote the time needed for the project's duration.

For the ocean hall, the museum needed a modern oceanographer, an invertebrate zoologist, a paleontologist, and an educator. The ocean hall's core team consisted of Brian Huber, Jill Johnson, Sharon Cooper, Carole Baldwin, Elizabeth Musteen, and Michael Vecchione, and they assembled in October of 2003. To learn more about its members, read “Meet the Core Team.”

During this time, the Museum decided to use a unique contracting method called “design-build,” where the people who build the exhibit work with exhibit designers to solve problems during the design process. The contract was awarded to Design & Production, an exhibit fabrication firm based in Lorton, Va. They partnered with the exhibit design firm, Gallagher & Associates. At that point, this larger team began working together to figure out how to translate important ideas from the Statement of Purpose into exhibits visitors would like and understand.

The percentage phase

A core team’s first task is called the 10% phase. This consists of a bubble plan, which locates ideas on the exhibit floor, and the goals of each area. For example, the ocean hall team knew that it wanted an area to focus on the history of the ocean – the paleontology story internally called Journey Through Time. This was one bubble. This phase also included the general direction the exhibit would take.

Each phase included increasing detail, as the team zeroed in on what will become the final exhibit plan. The next phase is called the 35% phase. This included a more developed floor plan, which predicted how people will circulate around the floor and provided more details about the content. Since the ocean hall is a major collaboration with NOAA, every step of the way included meetings with NOAA experts for their comments and suggestions.

The 65% phase included detailed lists of specimens, drawings, and other graphics, and the location where each one belongs. It also included drafts of text to be included with each part of the exhibit.

Original bubble plan
The drawing of the biodiversity display (left) and the graphical treatment of the journey through time section (right) show how the team created both rough illustrations and detailed layouts in the process of refining plans for the ocean hall. Image courtesy of: The Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History

After the 65% phase was accepted by the senior staff at the museum and NOAA, the planning moved into the 95% phase. This phase included all specimen labels, specifications for all exhibit cases, and the exact text to be placed on the wall.

Once all the planning was complete, exhibit fabrication and construction began in the renovated space. Read about restoring this space.

Here come the visitors

When the exhibit opened in September 2008, it had spanned a planning period of about five years. It is a permanent hall, which in museum terms means that it is intended to last at least 30 years. But don’t wait that long to come and see it – the ocean hall, like its subject, is a dynamic place, constantly changing and cutting-edge. Come explore!

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