Legacy Aquarium’s Imaginative Design Illusion Reinvents Its Largest Exhibit

The Audubon Aquarium of the Americas largest exhibit, Gulf of Mexico, was an older, outdated and dark exhibit space that needed to be modernized. With a lot of unused wall real estate opposite the tank, we had the perfect opportunity to not only add brighter visual interest, but to use an optical illusion to surround visitors on all sides by the Gulf Tank.

With a major gathering of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) rapidly approaching, it was clear that nothing less than a fully immersive experience would serve for a gala of more than 3,000 AZA attendees. Working around the clock on a tight timeline, we created eye-catching graphics and interpretives that put visitors inside the tank for a more immersive experience. On time and on budget, this project is an example of imaginative environment and exhibit design to inspire wonder and awe, while educating towards the goals & mission of the Audubon Aquarium.

THE NEED: Visually update the Gulf of Mexico exhibit, the aquarium’s largest tank. THE GOAL: To design an experience that transforms the
space from a stand alone tank exhibit to a seemingly larger, immersive exhibit surrounding visitors on all sides.

“A truly remarkable transformation”

You guys really pulled it off. It’s amazing what some mirrors and wall coverings did for our Gulf of Mexico exhibit… truly a remarkable transformation! – KEVIN CHENEVERT, AUDUBON NATURE INSTITUTE

Opportunity & Challenge

Centered around a 400,000 gallon tank with a variety of endemic species, the Gulf of Mexico exhibit was an outdated, dim space that needed a
modern update. Ultimately we wanted to immerse visitors inside the tanks by creating the illusion of being surrounded on all sides by the tank. To do this, we needed to make the exhibit space appear larger by strategically placing mirrors on underutilized walls that would reflect different parts of the tank. To finish the illusion we’d need to use custom designed wall wraps over top of the mirrors and floor graphics to mimic the inside of the actual tank in order to create one continuous underwater scene throughout the entire exhibit.

With just 3 months to prepare for the AZA gala, we had limited time to update the space. To meet the project deadline, we worked late nights and early mornings around visitor hours (not to mention sleeping hours for the animals!). Not only did we have to construct new walls and devise ways to support the mirrors, but we also had to keep the safety of aquarium visitors in mind so strollers and wheelchairs wouldn’t collide with mirrors too close to the ground. We made it happen by hiring the right partners, project managing contractors, who were all simultaneously working on the project, and coordinating with the aquarium staff to ensure the project was completed on time and to their utmost satisfaction.

“It means a lot to us, your coworkers”

I was really impressed at your ability to get the project done not only well, but also inside a deadline. You know, it means a lot to us. The people you’re working side-by-side on the project. Just know that we really appreiciated your hard work. – JIM CORTINA, CORTINA PRODUCTIONS

The Plan

Following Peter Sollogub’s (Associate Principal at CambridgeSeven) initial vision, for the Gulf of Mexico exhibit we implemented custom cut floor to ceiling mirrors that strategically reflected the tank, effectively doubling the size of the exhibit. But to create a fully underwater immersive illusion, we would need to convince visitors that the mirrors weren’t actually mirrors.

To make this work, we had pictures taken of the existing tank as seen from a visitor’s perspective to take advantage of the tank’s most notable features: decommissioned oil rig legs that create a natural fish habitat. Since we couldn’t dive into the tank to get images, we could only photograph two usable angles of the tank’s fish, sand, rock, and oil rig legs to work with. These two photos were used to digitally construct one large, 3,665 sq ft composite scene, printed on wall and carpet graphic material, and applied to all wall surfaces including the mirrors, as well as the floors near the tank.

Finally, we carefully hand cut chosen pieces of the graphics from the mirrors to reveal the tank’s reflection. Not only would this serve to break up a continuous reflection, but it would allow the reflected animals to appear as if they are swimming behind the graphics, adding depth and movement and making for a more convincing illusion.

Deliverables

From top to bottom, the entire Gulf of Mexico exhibit was outfitted with floor to ceiling mirrors & custom designed graphics that completely immerse you in the space, making visitors feel as if they are inside the tank.

  • Utlilzed mirrored walls, from floor to ceiling surrounding the exhibit which was around 1,700 sq ft
  • Sourced a local company, Standard  Mirror and Glass, to custom cut and install the mirrors
  • Using only two images, designed wraps that covered 3,665 square feet
  • Installed graphics on walls and mirrors in the the exhibit area
  • Utilized wooden kickplates to protect the bases of the mirrors from damage
  • Designed and printed 8 species
    identification signs on white PVC
  • Designed & illustrated a infographic about the jellyfish lifecycle
  • Designed and installed carpet floor graphics in front of the aquarium glass

What we learned

Because of the tight timeframe, adding contour cuts to sections of the mural that needed to be removed was a luxury we didn’t have. Hand cutting and removing mural sections from the mirrors was definitely a time consuming challenge. However, it did allow us flexibility on the spot to choose which sections would best reflect the tank. And, it was all worth it when the day of the gala arrived!

Sometimes the logistics of getting graphics into hard to access areas make for an interesting problem solving opportunity. Almost all aquariums inherently have pipes in the places we need to wrap with murals. Fortunately, Drew of Magic Murals loves meticulously cutting around each one individually. The final product creates a seamless look, integrating the graphics into the space.

Let’s support each other

We wholeheartedly believe in supporting the conservation of our oceans. You can help by donating time and money so that the Audubon Nature Institute can continue to provide top notch education programs, new exhibits, and maintenance of its beautiful facilities and parks.

DONATE TO THE AUDOBON SOCIETY

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