The Melbourne Aquarium visitor experience left me feeling a little cranky?

We could consider Melbourne Zoo a good example of how the aquarium should have been designed. The seal and penguin zoo’s enclosure takes visitors deep below the waterline without the use of elevators and escalators, providing a smoother and more enjoyable visit.

As visitors move further through the aquarium, the more problems become apparent. Navigating the space is problematic and some customers retreat against the procession of the crowd. Down into the basement, exposed concrete walls give the charm of a supermarket parking garage. It seems that no opportunity was overlooked to save money in construction.

A penguin with a chick at the Sea Life Melbourne Aquarium.

So what can we expect from the aquarium? The obvious comparison of a very successful exhibition building is the Melbourne Museum. Located in Carlton Gardens, the design of the museum provides a generous internal space for visitors to explore at their own pace. This layout feels grand and generous and also puts visitors in control so they can choose their own path of discovery.

By offering this spacious circulation space, the experience is also pleasant during the peak pressure of the school holidays. Importantly, like the Melbourne Zoo, all levels are open to all, with no elevators, to ensure groups can explore exhibits together.

Coincidentally, both the Aquarium and the Melbourne Museum are the same age, but the museum looks almost as fresh as the day it opened. The aquarium, on the other hand, feels like a poorly repurposed bunker.

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It’s hard not to conclude that the poor visitor experience is a result of the organization being a for-profit company. While non-profit or government agencies have a quality and community focus, a for-profit company is all about shareholder return. It has to be “just good enough” not to scare people off.

It’s easy to sit back and say “who cares, they’re a private company”. While this is true, our community should be able to expect a minimum standard of quality from our publicly accessible buildings. In my opinion, the aquarium does not meet that standard.

With Melbourne reopening to tourism after the COVID lockdown years, a major overhaul of the aquarium will give visitors another reason to explore our beautiful city.

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