Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium announces $500 million makeover ahead of its 100th anniversary

Sea Change

Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium announces $500 million makeover ahead of its 100th anniversary

Located along Lake Michigan, Chicago’s 92-year-old Shedd Aquarium is the world’s third-largest. (ajay-suresh/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 2.0)

Shedd Aquarium, the 5-million-gallon aquatic anchor of Chicago’s Museum Campus, announced last week that it will undergo a major, multi-phase renovation effort beginning later this year. Setting out to improve visitor accessibility, enhance the aquarium’s award-winning exhibits and historic galleries, and restore myriad original architectural features of the Beaux-Arts-style building designed by Graham, Anderson, Probst & White (the Wrigley Building, Merchandise Mart, and numerous other early 20-century Chicago architectural icons), work on the modernization-focused first phase is expected to conclude in 2026. The timing of the 8-year project is deliberate as it is due to wrap up—with some wiggle room—ahead of Shedd’s 100th anniversary in 2030.

Debuting in 1930, the National Historic Landmark-listed Shedd Aquarium was among the first-ever inland aquariums and today ranks as the third-largest aquarium in the world. (Domestically, that title is now held by another inland institution, the 11-million-gallon Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta.) Today, Shedd is home to 25,000 aquatic animals spanning 1,1000 species and has the largest paid attendance of any of the 11 member institutions belonging to Chicago’s Museums in the Park organization, including neighboring Museum Campus heavyweights the Adler Planetarium and the Field Museum of Natural History.

rendering of kids and parents observing an aquarium habitat featuring a very large fish
A new habitat within the aquarium’s reimagined historic galleries. (Courtesy Shedd Aquarium)

Valerio Dewalt Train, an architecture firm with offices in Chicago, Denver, San Francisco, and Palo Alto, will lead the design of the transformative revamp and will be joined by, among others, exhibit design partner Thinc Design, project manager JLL, accessibility partner Institute for Human Centered Design, and diversity, equity, and inclusion partner Trinal Inc. The joint venture of Pepper/BMI Construction LLC will serve as general contractor. As detailed in a press release, Shedd has established “self-imposed goals” to award subcontracting packages to at least 26 percent and 6 percent MBE/WBE vendors and commit 50 percent of total labor work hours to Chicago residents, with 25 percent of all onsite labor works hours to minority and female workers while also ensuring that “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.” Job preferences will be given to residents of the 4th Ward, where the aquarium is located.

Overall, onsite construction/renovation work at Shedd is anticipated to generate more than 2,000 jobs and lead to more than $340 million in economic activity throughout the multiyear effort. Once work is completed and the new Shedd Aquarium is revealed, the institution’s total annual economic impact is projected to exceed $410 million.

The physical overhaul kicking off later this year at Shedd is just one element of the aquarium’s larger $500 million Centennial Commitment. As detailed in a press announcement, more than half of these funds will be used to expand the aquarium’s educational and conservation programming both within the facility itself and outside of it through community investments and other initiatives 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.”

renderings of a glass-enclosed tunnel at an aquarium with brightly colored coral
A new tunnel exhibit will link the main aquarium building with the adjacent Abbot Oceanarium. (Courtesy Shedd Aquarium)

“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,” said Dr. Bridget C. Coughlin, president and CEO of Shedd Aquarium. “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.”

Shedd Aquarium’s new, community-dedicated spaces mentioned above are among the highlights of the planned revamp. Central to expanding its educational mission is the Learning Commons, a new “experiential hub and curiosity incubator” that will be located on the aquarium’s main level. As detailed in the announcement, this expansive space will act 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.” Additionally, five existing scientific laboratories will merge into a single, central Science Hub dedicated to microbial ecology, conservation science, water quality and chemistry, genome studies, and pathology.

rendering of penguins being displayed at an educational space at an aquarium
A penguin meet and greet at the Learning Commons, a major new space planned for Shedd Aquarium. (Courtesy Shedd Aquarium)

The original six galleries of the aquarium will be rendered more “accessible, interactive, highly immersive, and science-rich” as part of the revamp and include specialized water systems for the “customized care and needs of over 1,100 species.” Enhanced public spaces, as well as improved accessibility for guests of all abilities, will also both play key roles with plans calling for improved circulation pathways that make exploring the sprawling facility easier and more efficient, particularly for those using wheelchairs or with other mobility needs. Notably, a new 35-foot-long tunnel enclosed in a 190,000-gallon habitat will provide a new direct link between the main aquarium building and the Abbot Oceanarium, a newer adjacent facility housing marine mammals and birds.

Renovation work will also extend outside of the aquarium and its galleries to the four acres of Lake Michigan-fronting green space that flanks the landmark building. “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,” explained the aquarium. “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.”

renderings of an educational space in an aquarium
View of the Learning Commons, a new educational hub featuring multiple classroom spaces planned for the aquarium. (Courtesy Shedd Aquarium)

The physical footprint of Shedd aquarium will not grow as part of the reimagining, which is the largest capital project for Shedd in recent history. In 1991, the aquarium debuted the Abbott Oceanarium while the subterranean Wild Reef exhibit opened in 2003. The aquarium will remain open to the public throughout the forthcoming round of major renovations.

“Since the first day it opened its doors to the public, the Shedd Aquarium has attracted visitors from near and far— helping to spark interests and spread knowledge about aquatic life,” said Chicago Mayor Lori E. Lightfoot. “Through this incredible Centennial Commitment, the Shedd Aquarium will be able to build on this reputation as well as give back to the surrounding community, modernize their facility and deepen their ongoing environmental research. We look forward to continuing to partner with our world-class aquarium to advance their ambitions, which will undoubtedly strengthen our city’s economy and tourism scene.”

You can read Shedd Aquarium’s full Centennial Commitment here.