Monday, November 18, 2013

A Visit To Ripley's Aquarium Toronto Canada

This past weekend, I went to the Ripley's Aquarium in Toronto, Canada.

With me, the brand name "Ripley's" doesn't inspire thoughts of quality or educational value - I always think of tawdy, even tasteless, shows of hyperbole and stuff that is probably not there to get your brain-cells working.  Some west-coast American on a studio set straight out of "Entertainment Tonight" telling you about how they're about to show you the most amazing three headed snake, that's really only 6 inches long, but they do some camera and magnification work to make it look longer than the CN Tower is tall, is they type of stuff I associate with that brand... Oh, and paying far too much to see it.

So you can imagine how I felt when I found out we'd bought $100 of tickets ($60 for two adults, $40 for two seniors, and the twinnado, being very young was free) plus taxes to go to this place.  I was waiting for something of a tat parade - all eye candy and not much else.  I left the aquarium in not much of better state of mind than I entered and here's why.

The footprint of the aquarium is clearly too small for the number of people and exhibits inside it.  We went at the time we did, thinking that many people would be at the Santa Claus parade. It was still packed.  If you think about some of the larger plots of land that the Ontario Place discussion has highlighted recently, this is clearly an attraction that would have benefitted from that land.  Instead, it's squeezed in very tightly, and this compounds what goes on inside.

You feel cramped because of the layout and design, and when you add the crowds of spatially-challenged idiots, out of control kids and a smattering of those generally clueless types who you get everywhere, and it's a maddening experience.

The piped music doesn't help either - quite what it's supposed to be is a mystery.  It might be something to make you think "ooh" and "ahh", but after a while you just want it turned off.

Talking of weird music, here's a thought experiment:  Think of a kids movie, in a scene where either pirates are swashbuckling, or people are hunting for something (ie. lots of orchestral brass, lots of string and tonnes of xylophone), that's what's piped outside the aquarium.  No idea why, but it is on a loop and gets very annoying too.

I will give the aquarium some credit where it's due - the livestock looks in good shape, and everything appears to be quite clean and healthy.  That's the good bit over with.

Everything is offset by an overwhelming feeling that the design is fine for the livestock, but it's not designed for people.  In the same way the TTC Bloor/Yonge station feels like it's designed for trains and not commuters - the aquarium has this feel too.

This feeling is backed up by two things:
1. Information issues.
2. Human/Livestock interaction issues.

I'll start with the information issues.  Imagine you're looking at a 18ft high wall of fish and kelp.  You can see the fish, but you can't work out what they are because the fish information are on plaques, which are placed about 1.5ft off the ground at the base of the tank.  Add in enough people that there is a crowd about 4 people deep between these signs and you, and you're just not going to feel inclined to navigate that, to work out what some grey/silver fish is bobbing about in the kelp.  This is a repeating issue, so you come away feeling like you've bugger-all idea what you just spent half your time looking at.

Being an aquarium, you'd expect there to be an educational spin on this.  You can't just be like "Give us your money and we'll give you some eye candy for an hour or so", but throughout the entire experience, I saw just one single LCD screen bolted to a wall outside the gift shop, that talked about the problem of ocean pollution and ecology.

This complete oversight (well, almost as there was that one screen by the gift shop) of educational and ecological information, was ironic because it highlighted the problem that humans and sea creatures generally don't get on, which leads me to the interaction issues.

Throughout the entire exhibit, I saw zero (none, nought) signs to tell people not to bang on the tanks and windows.  It doesn't take a genius to understand that water conducts vibrations better than air, and yet kids are banging the tanks and adults are trying to get livestock over to them by clanking keys against the perspex, tapping with rings, etc.  Again, this goes back to the place being designed without the people fully in mind - if they realized that people do that, they'd stick some signage up to stop it.

It must be hell for the animals to put up with that.

So, I left at the end (about 90 minutes later) feeling mentally exhausted by the crowds and awful audio, frustrated about what I'd seen the livestock having to go through due to the idiocy of the general public, feeling like they really need to have more staff down there to provide information (you feel abandoned after they take your money and shoot you down into the trail) and generally of the opinion that I was right in my previous biases before I'd even entered the place.

I can't see myself returning.