Monaco’s Musée Océanographique (Oceanographic Museum) is a leader in what has become known as the “Blue Initiative.” It was the first museum to celebrate the world’s oceans, recognize their vulnerability and try to enact change.
Founded by Prince Albert I, the great-great grandfather of Prince Albert II of Monaco, it is arguably the oldest institution committed to conserving the ocean environment. Upon its creation, Prince Albert I specified that the museum’s mission statement be “to know, to love and to protect the oceans.” The museum, conceived in 1906, opened its doors in 1910. The imposing historic neoclassic building perched on the “Rock” above Monaco has old-fashioned splendor, and its exhibits recall more the Smithsonian Institution than the Boston aquarium.
Still, it is a modern establishment, committed to education and service to its community, working in close relationship with political initiatives. Prince Albert I was extremely forward thinking, and Prince Albert II shares many of the same sensibilities as his namesake, including a sense of adventure and commitment to environmental causes.
Last year, in recognition of his extraordinary commitment to marine conservation, the International SeaKeepers Society presented Prince Albert II with its coveted SeaKeeper Award after an elegant fund-raising event held at the museum. Indeed, the prince’s initiatives have encouraged research worldwide.
Museum Director Robert Calcagno explains, “A few years ago, we held a two-day conference with more than 200 researchers and scientists from 60 different countries to discuss the ocean’s acidification. The scientific consensus of that conference was a unilateral recognition that the oceans are absorbing greenhouse gas—CO². A certain amount of CO² in the oceans is perfectly fine, but an unfortunate byproduct of those gasses means that the oceans are getting an excess of acid, which is highly detrimental,” he says. In 2009, Prince Albert II, as head of state, took that message–the “Monaco Declaration of Acidification”–to the rest of the world.
In March 2010, Prince Albert II gathered 36 champions of the sea to talk about preserving marine species such as sharks and tunas. With these large predators being threatened, the ecosystem as a whole is threatened as well. He also discussed the idea of exploring the ocean’s greatest depths. “The oceans, which are up to 10,000 meters deep, are less well known than the planet Mars,” Calcagno says.
The museum maintains important relationships with like entities worldwide. “We have a sister Oceanographic Museum in Paris, and we share knowledge and ideas with them. We are also highly focused on relationships with the USA and Canada. We are actively working with MIT, Woods Hole, Scripps, and the aquariums in Monterey, Boston and Vancouver,” Calcagno adds.
But the Oceanographic Museum is not one-dimensional. “Prince Albert I wanted to put in a single burst the two driving forces of our civilization—art and science—to make people understand the world’s oceans,” Calcagno says. Thus the museum showcases paintings and sculpture in addition to living fish in the aquarium. Last year, for instance, it hosted a major exhibition of hip, controversial artist Damien Hirst. The current exhibition is dedicated to the Mediterranean Sea. It features a monumental installation by the celebrated Sino-French artist Huang Yong Ping, and an exceptional collection of maritime objects that illustrate the Mediterranean’s rich biodiversity.
“The increasing urbanization of the coast, overfishing, exploitation of the natural resources, proliferation of invasive species, maritime transport and pollution of different kinds such as toxic waste are daily dangers facing the Mediterranean Sea and can lead to biodiversity impoverishment, with irredeemable cultural, economic and ecological consequences,” Calcagno says.
Another exhibit ongoing this year is OCEANOMANIA: Souvenirs of Mysterious Seas, a new project by American artist, naturalist, archeologist and traveler Mark Dion, who created a monumental curiosity cabinet also currently on display.
Looking to the future, the museum plans to host new exhibits, continue to marry science and art and educate the public about our precious oceans.