Still Blue After a Century of Ocean Science and Exploration

The "Lower Invertebrates" exhibit in Smithsonian Institution Building in 1901 included models of a giant squid and an octopus.
The "Lower Invertebrates" exhibit in Smithsonian Institution Building in 1901 included models of a giant squid and an octopus. (Smithsonian Archives)

This year marks 100 years since the National Museum of Natural History opened its doors, but the Smithsonian’s work in marine science dates back more than 160 years.

In fact, our marine collection—the largest in the world at more than 80 million specimens—has its roots in The U.S. Exploring Expedition (or “Ex Ex,” for short). From 1838 to 1842, six vessels and more than 340 men, including a team of nine scientists and artists, sailed the seas exploring, establishing a diplomatic presence, demonstrating a new nation’s Naval prowess, and documenting cultural and scientific diversity.

The Ex Ex crew literally journeyed into uncharted waters and conducted surveys of the Antarctic coast, Fiji and other Pacific islands, the Columbia River, and the U.S. coast along Oregon and California. The ships also circumnavigated the globe making stops in Manila, Singapore, Sydney, Cape Horn, and other ports.

The data, observations, and objects they collected were overwhelming. The budding scientific community in the United States struggled to manage the 4,000 cultural objects, 50,000 pressed plants, 2,150 birds, 134 mammals, 588 species of fish, 400 species of coral, 1,000 species of crustacea (crabs, shrimp, lobster, and related organisms), 300 fossil species, and more than 5,300 insect specimens the crew brought back.

Eventually, members of the original expedition reconvened in Washington, D.C., to unpack and organize the collection and to prepare objects for exhibition in the Patent Office's Great Hall. The exhibition was a hit with the public, and the collection served as source material for volumes of scientific publications, cultural studies, maps and nautical charts, and even new research institutions. In many ways, the Ex Ex marks a major milestone in the development of scientific practice in the United States. But the journey of the Ex Ex collection did not end there.

In 1858, it found a permanent home among the holdings of the recently established Smithsonian Institution. Although the objects from the Ex Ex make up a small portion of the Smithsonian’s modern collections, its historical and scientific significance still loom large.

Since then, the Smithsonian has made strides in ocean science and conservation. You might say that the institution has really “found its blue.”

As the decades passed, the Institution expanded its collection, developed a scientific diving program, established four research stations on the coastlines of North and Central America, and created the Marine Science Network to draw together the efforts of scores of marine researchers who work in many corners of the institution.

In the Fall of 2010, we are looking ahead and celebrating new marine milestones: the second birthday of the Sant Ocean Hall at the National Museum of Natural History, the recent launch of the Ocean Portal, and the second installment of Changing Tides, our ocean science lecture series sponsored by the National Science Foundation.

At the same time, our collections continually prove their relevance in new ways. In 1842, no one could have predicted that DNA barcoding would allow scientists to study specimens in such fundamental detail or that our collections from the Gulf of Mexico could help researchers make comparisons of life before and after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

More than a century after our founding (and nearly two centuries since the Ex Ex set sail), our vision as an institution has expanded. The “grand challenges” we face in the modern era, demand that we not only collect and identify marine species, but protect them as well—so that 100 years from now, ours is a healthy, biodiverse Blue Planet.

September 2010