Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium reveals details behind major building and exhibition upgrades

Decorated Shedd

Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium reveals details behind major building and exhibition upgrades

Enhancements to Shedd’s exterior and four acres of surrounding green space will provide improvements to park-goers and museum visitors alike. (Courtesy Shedd Aquarium)

Ahead of Shedd Aquarium’s public debut in 1930, millions of gallons of ocean water were shipped from Key West, Florida to Chicago via rail to make the inland aquarium. The Beaux Arts building it was hosted in was designed by prominent Chicago architects Graham, Anderson, Probst & White, and was adorned with sea creature motifs and a trident atop its rotunda. The aquarium joined the ranks of Chicago’s major philanthropically funded cultural institutions, and eventually expanded its footprint in 1991, and again in the early 2000s. 

As the aquarium looks forward to its centennial in 2030, and as AN reported last year, its building will undergo major renovations. Valerio Dewalt Train was announced as the architect to lead the aquarium’s major renovation project, which would be open for the centennial. Yesterday, the Shedd revealed further details on its major capital project, including a projected 2027 completion date.

The architectural and exhibition design overhauls fall within the Shedd’s Centennial Commitment plan, which will fund new education and research programs in addition to capital improvements. The four year plan for built upgrades was publicly unveiled yesterday, with the aquarium saying that it will not need to close in entirety throughout the process. 

Shedd’s current accessible entrance will be enhanced to create a greater sense of arrival for guests, school buses, and groups. A new entry experience and exterior ticketing pavilion will offer a more seamless, quick and streamlined start to a visit. (Courtesy Shedd Aquarium)

The first set of upgrades will carry into summer 2024. On the exterior, four acres of land surrounding the building will be redesigned to host living classrooms through upgraded and additional gardens, with support for programs like honey production. Changes to the museum’s entrance will move ticketing to the outside under a pavilion, with improvements to the entrance creating a “greater sense of arrival,” as the aquarium put it. Upon arrival, circulation from the Shedd’s central atrium will shift with the hope of allowing visitors more choice over how they navigate through exhibitions, and smoothing over the building’s numerous grade changes for more accessible paths. Exhibition redesigns will move dual fresh- and salt-water habitats into the rotunda, with guests passing under the tanks, flanked by the divided habitats on either side. The Shedd’s existing Amazon Rising exhibition will be renovated to better educate visitors on Amazonian habitats, including an electric eel voltage meter.

Guests will be able to come eye-to-eye with large freshwater fish as they feed and explore in Amazon Rising. (Courtesy Shedd Aquarium)
Guests will walk through the middle of the Wonder of Water, observing vibrant corals living on one side and a lushly planted freshwater fish habitat on the other. (Courtesy Shedd Aquarium)

The second phase will focus on a two-year restructuring of many of the Shedd’s exhibitions, beginning summer 2024. A new immersive feature, Changing Oceans, will lead visitors past the changing depths of a water column with a focus on how marine life is shifting due to climate change. Additional new exhibitions include a multistory “towering kelp forest,” which will foster marine life including leopard sharks, Whalefall, showing the ecosystem around whale carcasses on the ocean floor, and the Lakeside Learning Studio, which will relocate the Shedd’s education spaces from the basement to the main floor with the capacity to serve 230,000 students annually. The popular Caribbean Reef will be reimagined as the Caribbean Tunnel, allowing guests to view the warmwater habitat through a 40-foot glass-arched path. 

The completely reimagined Caribbean Reef habitat features guest favorites like the rescued green turtle Nickel alongside blacktip reef sharks, goliath grouper, and new spotted eagle rays. (Courtesy Shedd Aquarium)
The new Lakeside Learning Studio will be available to all guests and will greatly increase Shedd’s capacity for facilitated learning experiences. (Courtesy Shedd Aquarium)

The final phase of design improvements will carry through winter 2026. Curatorial changes include a renovated River Wonders, focusing on Illinois stream life, and a Living Lakes exhibition emphasizing the importance of freshwater ecosystems. The final major change will come to the Grand Hall, which will undergo historic preservation work with the hope of creating a “more welcoming atmosphere.” Additional preservation work throughout the building will include masonry restoration and uncovering original windows whose views of the lake had been built over.

Ramping throughout the aquarium will significantly reduce the number of level changes at Shedd. (Courtesy Shedd Aquarium)

Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson said that the “Shedd Aquarium’s Centennial Commitment is a transformational investment for CPS students and youth across the city that will provide unprecedented opportunities to connect with nature and the environment, which are essential to our ongoing pursuit of environmental justice.” The Shedd will be pursuing targets of at least 50 percent on-site labor hours coming from workers residing in Chicago and 25 percent of on-site labor hours coming from female and minority workers.  

Shedd’s Grand Hall, featuring Georgian marble, limestone and Chicago brick work from its opening in 1930, will be restored and exalted in this space, which will become a gathering space for guests and a place for pop-up animal encounters and learning programs. (Courtesy Shedd Aquarium)

$340 million of the Shedd’s Centennial Commitment will be funneled into the building upgrades, which the institution projects will increase the Shedd’s annual economic impact to $410 million. Shedd Aquarium board Chair David Koo said that “the investment we are making is not only for this organization, but is an investment in impact, growth and opportunity for the people of this great state and city of which we humbly are in service to.”