- The Washington Times - Friday, September 26, 2008

The Smithsonian tomorrow will unveil the largest renovation within the National Museum of Natural History since the domed building opened on the Mall in 1910. The 23,000-square-foot Sant Ocean Hall, across the rotunda from the museum’s Mall entrance, is named for District philanthropists Victoria and Roger Sant, who donated a $15 million endowment for its upkeep.

Its new exhibits, designed by Bethesda-based Gallagher & Associates, combine traditional displays of whale bones and sharks teeth with video footage of undersea life. They are packed into a grand, skylit space beautifully restored by Quinn Evans Architects of the District to show off the museum’s beaux-arts-style architecture, originally designed by the local firm Hornblower and Marshall.

Before the five-year, $49 million renovation, the hall was divided into three small galleries with a 1960s mezzanine. New escalators now link the second-floor space to the lower Constitution Avenue side of the building.

The exhibits take advantage of the museum’s remarkable marine collection — the largest in the world — with aquatic specimens preserved in jars and re-created in models while relating the latest scientific information about sea environments through computer kiosks.

“This is not a hall about fish,” museum Director Cristian Samper said at a preview Wednesday. “It’s a hall about telling the story of the ocean.” The only live species on view, he noted, are part of a 1,500-gallon aquarium simulating a coral reef in the Pacific.

With dense displays ranging from a diorama of a Chesapeake Bay estuary to a Tlingit-carved wooden canoe, the hall is replete with seaworthy attractions.

Phoenix, a 45-foot-long replica of a North Atlantic right whale at the center of the hall, is based on photos and drawings of a 21-year-old whale last seen in July off the Maine coast. The urethane model accurately portrays the patterns of callosities — crusty, barnaclelike patches of skin — along her chin.

Hanging near Phoenix are huge skeletons of her ancient predecessors to reveal how land mammals morphed into baleen whales over millions of years. They include the bones of a basilosaurus, a seagoing creature with tiny hind legs, excavated in Mississippi.

Another fantastic giant of the sea is a 24-foot-long female squid captured off the Spanish coast. It is preserved in a huge stainless-steel case to show off her long tentacles.

In a side gallery, “Science on a Sphere” presents a global picture of the oceans through satellite data and images collected by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

The information is translated through four rotating videos projected onto a 6-foot-wide globe. One visual sequence documents how the Earth began, while another shows how the world would look if the oceans were drained.

Deep-sea creatures are subjects of an exhibit called “Twilight Zone” and a History Channel film of a trip by “Alvin,” a small submarine, to the ocean bottom. Through bioluminescence, species including the Atlantic flashlight fish glow in the pitch-black depths like neon lights.

Tomorrow’s public opening of Ocean Hall will be accompanied by performances, book signings and lectures from 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Native Hawaiian music and dancing and a Tlingit drum ceremony will precede the unveiling of the exhibits at noon. A panel discussion on the design of the hall will be held at 1 p.m. For more information, call 202/633-2950.

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