Shedd Aquarium has unveiled plans for the most significant physical transformation of its lakeside home in recent history – a reimagination of the aquarium’s historic galleries with new immersive, bilingual, and science-rich exhibits, an enhanced accessible and more seamless entry experience, greater space for conservation science research labs and modernized animal husbandry infrastructure, and robust investments in spaces and programs for environmental learning – all to be completed by 2027.
“We know that when people can truly connect with animals, it motivates an emotional, empathetic response that shifts attitudes and fosters a personal sense of responsibility for local waters, global oceans, and wildlife,” said Bridget Coughlin, PhD, President and CEO at Shedd Aquarium. “People cannot care about something they do not know or understand, and it is only when we care about something, we are motivated to act – to love it, to protect it, to save it. In this age of increased urbanization and disconnection from nature, there is greater urgency to ensure more resilient, sustainable, and thriving communities and ecosystems for the future. As such, greater opportunity must exist to nurture care and understanding for our shared blue planet. Shedd Aquarium’s experience evolution aims to do just that.”
Distinctive animal biology, behaviors and biodiversity will center at the core of the new Shedd experience, replacing the current geographical-based experience with new ways to observe and learn about aquatic life. Many of the new exhibits will allow guests to feel as if they are beneath the water’s surface, engaging their senses and bringing them closer than ever to the wonder of the aquatic animal world. Hands-on programs will invite guests to dive deeper into programs such as learning what kelp tastes like, examining how a hagfish uses slime to protect itself, or observing what lives in our local waters through a high-powered microscope. Additionally, new circulation pathways will significantly improve the historic building’s ability to meet guest accessibility needs, particularly for those with strollers or mobility devices.
However, the most significant changes are not only for guests, but also the tens of thousands of animals under Shedd’s care. Amongst many changes will be the transformation of the aquarium’s North Gallery into an immersive tunnel exhibit, for example, to serve as the new home to one of the aquarium’s fan-favorites – rescued green sea turtle, Nickel. By providing double the amount of water volume and state-of-the art infrastructure to support a complex, warm saltwater environment, new spotted eagle rays will also join Nickel with over twice the space to swim and explore.
Last year, Shedd unveiled its 2030 comprehensive strategic plan aimed at ensuring a more equitable, sustainable, and thriving future for people and aquatic life. Leading to the organization’s 100th anniversary, the multi-faceted Centennial Commitment is a $500 million transformational investment in Chicago communities and aquatic ecosystems around the world, requiring half a billion dollars and eight years to accomplish. The experience evolution construction project accounts for approximately half of the total investment, and will take place across multiple years, and four phases to complete. Shedd will remain open throughout the project duration, with new galleries, programs and experiences opening on a rolling basis.
“For nearly a century, Shedd Aquarium has drawn visitors of all ages to the Land of Lincoln thanks to their state-of-the-art exhibits and nation-leading educational opportunities,” said Illinois Governor JB Pritzker. “This latest transformation won’t just accelerate climate action leadership and environmental protection throughout our state—it will also generate significant economic impact, job creation and tourism revenues. I congratulate Shedd Aquarium on this milestone and look forward to visiting the aquarium over the next several years to witness their evolution firsthand.”
Part of the aquarium’s accessibility commitments include fully bilingual (English and Spanish) exhibits. Shedd recently unveiled its first bilingual exhibit, Plankton Revealed – an interactive experience that highlights the importance of tiny organisms that could be overlooked but have a significant impact on the health and balance of aquatic ecosystems.
Earlier this year, the aquarium began construction on new Integrated Aquatic Science Labs – a state-of-the-art space for conservation research, water chemistry, molecular ecology, pathology and animal clinical care behind the scenes.
FOUR YEARS, FOUR PHASES
Summer 2023 – Summer 2024
• Welcome Plaza: Shedd’s current Accessible Entrance will be enhanced to create a greater sense of arrival for guests, school buses, and groups as they approach the building. A new entry experience and exterior ticketing pavilion will offer a more seamless, quick and streamlined start to a visit.
• Gardens: The four acres of green space surrounding Shedd’s historic lakefront building, including the Smith Family Gardens and Sick Family Gardens, will be mobilized into a living classroom that celebrates and activates nature play and learning for all without admission, in addition to serving as a vibrant habitat for local species and migrating bird and insect populations. Garden activities will include seeing how Shedd produces hundreds of pounds of honey while supporting many pollinators species.
• Atrium: New ticketing and security scanning technology will seamlessly sweep guests quickly into a bright and bold atrium. Once inside, new circulation pathways will create more choice in where to start a journey. Ramping throughout the aquarium will also significantly reduce the number of level changes at Shedd, improving physical mobility for guests.
• Gallery – Wonder of Water: The historic rotunda will soon be home to a dual-habitat system, one fresh water and saltwater, serving as the beating heart of the aquarium. Guests will walk through the middle, observing vibrant corals on one side and a lushly planted freshwater fish habitat on the other. New periscopes and towering viewing windows will give guests peeks into fish nests, anemones and more.
• Gallery – Amazon Rising: Several improvements to Amazon Rising, a compelling story of life in the Amazon River basin, will bring new energy to the exhibit. Renovations to the habitats of the arapaima and anaconda will explore how animals have adapted to life in some of the planet’s most unique and challenging environments. Exhibits will encourage behaviors like foraging, hunting, diving, mating, and interactives like an electric eel voltage meter will bring guests even closer to unique biology.
Summer 2024 – Summer 2026
• Gallery – Changing Oceans: In this completely new immersive experience, guests will follow a path to venture from the top of a vibrant ocean down through the depth of the water column. As they traverse through different biomes, guests will learn about how these animals and environments are changing in response to a shifting climate.
• Exhibit – Kelp Forest: This multi-story habitat will feature a towering kelp forest and the many animals like leopard sharks that make their home swimming among them. Seating will encourage guests to take a moment to be mesmerized by the wonder of these environments and better understand their important ecological function.
• Exhibit – Caribbean Tunnel: The reimagined Caribbean Reef habitat will feature guest favorites like the rescued green sea turtle, Nickel, alongside new arrivals like majestic spotted eagle rays in an expansive 40-foot tunnel.
•Exhibit – Whalefall: At the bottom of the seafloor, this exhibit will use sound, light and touch to tell the story of the unique, temporary environment that forms when a whale dies, the new ecosystem it creates for other species, and its surprising connection to climate change.
• Lakeside Learning Studio: A technologically savvy, flexible launchpad for learning, the Lakeside Learning Studio will bring Shedd’s education spaces up from the basement and into the core of the aquarium experience. This new, central home for learning will be available to all guests and contribute to a wider solution to address disparities in access to nature and educational opportunities – especially for historically disinvested communities on Chicago’s south and west sides. Animal pop-ins and hands-on science experiments will give Chicago communities the chance to explore hagfish slime or taste sea kelp – making learning a multi-sensory experience. Shedd scientists will stop by or satellite in from the field to talk about the aquarium’s ongoing conservation and research efforts both here and around the world. This new space will also greatly increase Shedd’s capacity for facilitated learning experiences, increasing the number of students Shedd engage from 180,000 to beyond 230,000 annually.
• North Terrace: Shedd will restore the North Terrace, and in the process, extend it by 10 feet, giving guests more space to spread out and enjoy the view of the lake and the city skyline. Underneath, this additional space will house new life support systems that will power many of Shedd’s new exhibits and galleries.
Summer 2026 – Winter 2026
• Gallery – River Wonders: The fully renovated Rivers experience will showcase river systems and interactive habitats that explore the biology and behavior of life in and around an Illinois stream. Guests will be enveloped by the sounds and sensations of moving water as it crashes and splashes through the habitats and explore how human impacts can have rippling effects on wildlife like Blanding’s turtles, mudpuppies, and wood frogs.
• Gallery – Living Lakes: Highlighting freshwater fishes as a vital resource for human communities, the updated Lakes gallery will offer new opportunities for guests to connect with uniquely evolved animals like cichlids from around the world, as well as popular interactives like the lake sturgeon touch habitat.
• Grand Hall: Shedd’s historic foyer will be restored to enhance the historical splendor and architectural details, while creating a more welcoming atmosphere. This room will become a gathering place, which will feature animal encounters, learning programs and interactives that call out historical depictions of aquatic life and cultural connections to water from around the world.
Through it all, Shedd will continue to steward and honor the building’s historic integrity and Beaux-Arts beauty. This will be done by mindfully restoring masonry, unblocking original windows providing views of the lake and the city and giving guests more opportunity to admire the limestone, Georgian marble and Chicago bricks that provide the foundation to this portal beneath the waves.
Shedd’s experience evolution was developed over several years with voices and insights from the community gathered through listening sessions, pilot programs, external consultants, and experience studies to truly understand how Shedd can better serve guests and foster moments of connection to each other, to aquatic animals and to nature.
INVESTING IN PEOPLE AND COMMUNITIES
The onsite transformation is poised to deliver a massive economic impact statewide, creating more than 2,000 jobs in Illinois and leading to more than $340 million in economic activity through its construction phases. After ribbon cutting, the aquarium’s estimated total economic impact will exceed $410 million annually.
“As trustees, we have the honor and obligation to steward the governance and fiduciary responsibility of this remarkable organization, yes, but our biggest job is championing its mission and ambitions as an aquarium for all,” said Shedd Aquarium Board Chair David Koo. “The investment we are making is not only for this organization, but is an investment in impact, growth and opportunity for the people of this great state and city of which we humbly are in service to.”
Locally, the aquarium’s onsite project will create economic opportunities for diverse contractors in Chicago. Shedd has mandated self-imposed goals to award subcontracting packages to diverse targets of at least 26% and 6% MBE/WBE vendors, 50% of total onsite labor work hours to Chicago residents, and 25% of all onsite labor work hours to minority and female workers. Additionally, Shedd has also committed to ensuring hundreds of thousands of dollars go directly into the pockets of nearby Chicagoans, creating greater economic mobility and benefit for communities closest to Museum Campus.
“Shedd Aquarium’s Centennial Commitment is a transformational investment for CPS students and youth across the city that will provide unprecedented opportunities to connect with nature and the environment, which are essential to our ongoing pursuit of environmental justice,” said Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson. “I applaud Dr. Coughlin, Board Chair Koo and all our partners at Shedd for centering our city’s youth – especially those from historically marginalized communities – in the design of these brilliant and vibrant new exhibits, programs and learning spaces. This work truly embodies the hope, the promise and the soul of Chicago.”
The modernization of the historic galleries will serve as the largest capital project for the organization in recent history, preceded by the expansion of the Abbott Oceanarium in 1991 (and its reimagination in 2008), Amazon Rising exhibit in 2001, and Wild Reef exhibit in 2003.
Transformational support for Shedd’s Centennial Commitment has been provided by The Harvey L. Miller Family Foundation, as well as the Mansueto Foundation, and Builders Initiative. Most recently, lead contributions have also been generously provided by the Cynthia Parker Matthews Family Foundation, The Grainger Foundation, Kenneth C. Griffin, Mike and Lindy Keiser, Anna and Bob Livingston, The Regenstein Foundation, the Searle Funds at The Chicago Community Trust, and Mary and Stephen Byron Smith.
Lead project partners on the four-year project include joint venture Chicago-based general contractor partners Pepper/BMI Construction LLC, architect Valerio Dewalt Train, project manager JLL (Jones Lang LaSalle), Shedd’s Design and Exhibits team – supported by exhibit design partner Thinc Design, inclusive museum design and accessibility partner Institute for Human Centered Design, diversity, equity and inclusion partner Trinal Inc. and more.