Shedd Aquarium unveiled a new, comprehensive strategic vision aimed at ensuring a more equitable, sustainable and thriving future for people and aquatic life. Leading to the organization’s 100th anniversary in 2030, the multi-faceted Centennial Commitment is a transformational investment in Chicago communities and aquatic ecosystems around the world, requiring half a billion dollars and eight years to accomplish.
“Five years ago, we began to imagine a visionary future in response to the needs facing the aquatic animal world, our city and our society in order to advance solutions to the biodiversity, climate and equitable access to nature crises that exist around us,” said Dr. Bridget C. Coughlin, President and CEO of Shedd Aquarium. “To ensure a shared future where resilient ecosystems and communities thrive together, it is going to take everyone to create collective impact and change. This means engaging neighbors, schools and local businesses in authentic conversations, elevating science literacy, cultivating a shared environmental identity, and helping to inform conservation solutions that safeguard the most vulnerable species across the globe. The Centennial Commitment is our pledge to do the work that is necessary now, to ensure the next 100 years includes a world thriving with aquatic life that is sustained by people who love, understand and protect it.”
Ambitions within Shedd Aquarium’s Centennial Commitment center around three primary pillars — “For People, For Communities, For Aquatic Life” — and include:
- Deeper community investments and partnerships that not only bring the aquarium further into Chicago neighborhoods, but also bring neighborhood-level environmental discussions and solutions into new, expansive, dedicated community spaces within Shedd’s walls.
- A modernized aquarium experience through the transformation and restoration of the historic galleries and dynamic new exhibits that provide greater and more accessible entry points to see and connect with aquatic life as a springboard to inquiry and nature exploration.
- New educational and experiential programs created with equity and inclusion at the center that deepen science learning, increase environmental literacy and empower futures for youth.
- Compelling digital engagements that bring animals and conservation action programs from the aquarium into more hands and homes everywhere.
- Advancements in exemplary animal care and welfare for the thousands of animals in our care and to increase Shedd’s capacity to respond to more wildlife in crisis; and
- Accelerated aquatic research and science to address the largest threats to biodiversity and species extinction.
More than half of the $500 million investment will power the programs and partnerships needed to achieve Shedd’s Centennial Commitment’s aspirations. These programs will not only be onsite, but also expand outside of the aquarium walls into communities, on the water and in nature, in virtual experiences and informal learning engagements, and through new and expanded onsite and field-based research and science portfolios centered on restoration, rewilding and rescue.
The remaining investment will focus on needed physical improvements to the historic Beaux-Arts-style building that will modernize the aquarium galleries and experience, enable greater accessibility, enhance animal habitats, and restore architectural features such as the opening of original windows that provide breathtaking views of the city skyline and Lake Michigan, and the creation of more welcoming and unobstructed public access to the building’s original exterior promenade and garden spaces.
Aquarium Transformation and Restoration
With support from joint venture 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; diversity, equity and inclusion partner Trinal Inc. and more, the aquarium’s new Experience Master Plan aims to honor the historical integrity of the building’s architecture while augmenting spaces for the needs of guests and the over 25,000 animals that call Shedd home today.
The multi-year, four-phase construction project will begin in late 2022 and is expected to conclude in 2026 with new galleries, programs and experiences opening each year on a rolling basis. A few of the project highlights include:
- A Modernized Experience: More accessible, interactive, highly immersive and science-rich galleries will bring guests closer to the animals they love. Through this investment, Shedd intends to grow attendance to serve up to 2.3 million guests annually and dramatically increase the number of schoolchildren who receive a personalized learning experience facilitated by Shedd Aquarium’s informed and enthusiastic team. Additionally, as leaders in animal care and welfare, the development will re-envision all specialized water systems for the customized care and needs of over 1,100 species.
- A New Learning Commons: An expansive new experiential hub and curiosity incubator, the Learning Commons — located at the historic core of the aquarium on the main level — will unlock significant new ways to encourage and facilitate learning. The technologically advanced, flexible space will serve as a launchpad, increasing the amount of existing classroom space to increase the total number of students engaged at Shedd from 170,000 to 230,000 annually, and provide multiple areas and more opportunities for Chicago communities to gather, engage and connect with animals, scientists and each other.
- A Centralized Science Hub: Five existing scientific laboratories will merge into one central, state-of-the-art Science Hub spanning microbial ecology, conservation science, water quality and chemistry, genome studies and pathology. The integration will allow for greater proximity of work to create cutting-edge conservation science in the wild and within the aquarium, expansion of up-to-the-minute technology capacities, and promotion of intellectual synergies among clinicians, animal caretakers, field biologists and scientists.
- Greater Physical Accessibility: New circulation pathways will significantly reduce the number of transitions between areas of the aquarium, allowing guests to have multiple options regarding where they can start their journey, and making navigation easier and more efficient for guests with strollers, wheelchairs and other mobility needs.
- Activated Outdoor Spaces: The four acres of green space around the building — equivalent to 40 Chicago backyards — offer a myriad of possibility to serve as a living classroom while extending the aquarium’s conservation efforts. New and reinvigorated spaces will offer everything from a celebration of natural splendor to a comfortable place where guests can view the profound meeting of land and water. Increasing these direct connections to nature as well as biodiversity at all levels will bolster resilience on the lakefront while adding experiential value and environmental improvements.
“We know that when people experience animals up close, it motivates an emotional, empathetic response that has the power to shift attitudes and foster stewardship of local waters, global oceans and wildlife,” Coughlin said. “In an age of increased urbanization, and as a national resource for aquatic conservation and education, we have a deep responsibility and obligation to help close the nature deficit gap. The onsite modernization of the aquarium experience is a significant tool that will help to enable this and several of our ambitions within the plan. We are excited to unveil this first, significant facet within the Centennial Commitment today, and look forward to sharing more exciting details about the other strategic investments throughout the year.”
Shedd’s 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.
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.
The project’s diverse spending goals are considered “the floor and not the ceiling,” according to the aquarium, as the organization’s ambition is to surpass all initial planned percentages.
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.