Note correction: It’s the Herbert Hoover Building, not J. Edgar.

The realization that things are somewhat amiss at the National Aquarium—after, that is, you notice that the place is located in the basement of the Department of Commerce’s J. Edgar Hoover Building, and that it’s awfully dark and a little smaller than the size of an average Petco store—hits you right about the time you get to the shark tank.

In a space not much bigger than a typical office cubicle, two lemon sharks and two nurse sharks share quarters with a red drum fish, a remora, and a rescued juvenile sea turtle from Georgia named Harold. Harold, as it happens, is an interloper. The tank next door is actually his home, but it sits empty, hidden behind a white curtain, having sprung a leak.

Though they are the largest specimens in the aquarium, the sharks are juveniles. There just isn’t enough room here in Room B-077 in the Hoover Building basement, at 14th Street and Constitution Avenue NW, for full-grown animals, unless they’re clown fish or tree frogs. At about 4 feet in length, the sharks are already getting too big for their digs. And, it turns out, they have a “condition.”

“Our lemon sharks have what we believe is a neurological condition and will occasionally lie on their side,” explains a laminated typed note taped to the glass. “The cause of the condition is undetermined at this time. Despite this condition, they are still eating well and remain otherwise healthy. In addition, they are outgrowing our exhibit so we are identifying a facility that can accommodate their size and possibly determine the cause of the neurological condition. Thank you for your understanding.”

Things are a little more promising over by the alligator exhibit, which is not hard to find, because of the abruptly harsh glare of the track lights bouncing off its shiny acrylic walls. Through them, you can see four American alligators—yes, they are juveniles, too—standing perfectly still in a naturalistic pond or lying motionless along the edge beneath sunlamps. An interactive computer quiz attached to the alligator case distracts your attention with an incessant, annoying doing. But at least the alligators don’t seem to have any “conditions,” beyond their natural lethargy.

There must have been a time when this basement room, now crammed with some 80 fish tanks, some no bigger than grade-school terrariums, was an architecturally pleasing place. But that was before three grand open pools, made of black marble and running down the center of the room, were covered over with another row of tanks. And before office workers upstairs in the building complained of noise bouncing off the walls, causing the vaulted ceilings to disappear behind a claustrophobia-inducing drop ceiling made of ordinary acoustic tile. And before somebody decided that the marble walls would look much better covered by navy blue drywall.

If you run your fingers along the edges of the tanks, you can feel the rough surfaces of the brass frames that have been corroded over the years by salt. The tanks are set too high for small children to be able to see into, so steps were built in front of the tanks for kids to get a better look. Except the aquarium is so dark that visitors began tripping over them. So the steps are no more.

Welcome to the National Aquarium, Washington’s most forlorn tourist attraction.

As the nation’s oldest continuously operating public aquarium, the National Aquarium holds a venerable place in history; it’s the present that has been the real problem. For decades, the place has been engaged in a losing battle to stay current. Washington’s aquarium has lived in the shadow of the better-known—and vastly bigger and more exciting—National Aquarium in Baltimore ever since it opened, in 1979. And as more cities have built “destination” aquariums like the one at the Inner Harbor, more visitors who make the trek down to the basement of the Hoover Building find themselves considerably underwhelmed. Of course, that applies only to those who know that Washington’s aquarium exists.

In other major cities, aquariums, like art museums, are symbols of civic pride. San Francisco has the Steinhart Aquarium. Boston has the New England Aquarium. Monterey, Calif., has what many consider the nation’s finest, the Monterey Bay Aquarium. And Chicago has the nation’s largest, the John G. Shedd Aquarium. Despite its name, the National Aquarium is one of the few major cultural institutions in the District that isn’t part of the Smithsonian Institution. But it’s also one of the most obscure. As is typical of Washington, no one has the heart to demolish a landmark, but neither has anyone mustered the will to improve it.

Twenty minutes to go before the Wednesday shark feeding. A busload of fifth-graders from Charlottesville, Va., have just shattered the librarylike silence of the aquarium’s darkened hallways. Four-foot-high chattering bundles of hats, puffy coats, and scarves have taken over the lobby. Three boys immediately surround the “touch tank,” a shallow pool of brackish water surrounded by fiberglass “rocks,” one of which has a gaping hole in it. In the pool are horseshoe crabs and two kinds of whelk. With their arms in the water up to their elbows, the boys poke at a crab in the corner of the pool.

“What’s that long black thing?! It’s, like, part of his body!” says a boy in a Pittsburgh Steelers jacket and matching knit cap.

“It’s poo,” says the teenage girl who is minding the tank.

“Eewwww!” the boys scream. None, however, take their hands out of the tank.

“Touch it! Touch it!” demands a chubby kid in a long-sleeved black shirt. “Don’t touch it,” says the volunteer wearily, between noisy sips of an extra-large soda. She looks at her watch. “Ten minutes to the shark feeding,” she announces.

That does the trick. As if she had just rung some Pavlovian bell, the boys quickly pull their arms out of the water and take off.

The daily feedings at 2 p.m. are the climax of the National Aquarium experience. The fifth-graders mass in front of Tank 20, home to the two nurse sharks and the two lemon sharks with the “condition.” There are other sharks in the aquarium—four other species, in fact—but as the biggest fish in this particular pond, the sharks in Tank 20 come closest to matching the average visitor’s Jaws-inspired expectations. Which is to say, not very close.

No one within the gaggle of grade-schoolers waiting so expectantly for something to happen notices Jay Bradley standing off to the side. The aquarium’s general curator, a 30-something marine biologist, Bradley is easy to miss in his nondescript uniform of gray polo shirt and khakis. He seems equally oblivious to the din around him as he stares into the depths of Tank 18, the “Rigs to Reefs” tank. (Inside the Chevron-sponsored exhibit is a replica of part of an oil rig on which various forms of aquatic life have made a home.) But his reverie ends quickly. When he looks down at his watch and sees the hour hand at 2, he wades through the waist-high horde of kids to take up position in front of a set of shark teeth that hangs on the wall by the tanks.

As Bradley explains the difference between sharks, which have cartilage skeletons, and bony fish, his audience grows restless. Some kids press their faces up to the glass; others chatter among themselves. Bradley, who is used to this, keeps his lecture short. “If you can hold on a minute, I’ll be back after the feeding to answer any questions,” he says, before disappearing behind a dark-blue door. Soon pieces of smelt—thawed-out, headless, frozen fish—begin gliding down from the top of the tank.

“What are they feeding them?” one boy asks, eying the strange-looking food.

“Fish with their heads cut off!” says another boy, simultaneously horrified and impressed.

The nurse sharks, which until that moment have been lying around on the bottom of the tank, rouse themselves and begin swimming aggressively toward their lunch. The room fills with lots of oohing and ahhhing. One nurse shark comes nose to nose with a boy with his face pressed against the glass. The boy begins to growl loudly.

After a few minutes, however, the sated sharks resume their perfunctory movements. Some return to the bottom of the tank. The grade-schoolers begin to drift away. By the time Bradley reappears to take questions, the only people left in front of the tank are four adults. Bradley shrugs. “I don’t know whether to give them more information in the beginning or afterwards,” he says. “All I ask for is 10 minutes.”

Bradley has a tough job. Getting people interested in fish, reptiles, and marine and freshwater invertebrates is not an easy business. After all, they’re not exactly as lovable as Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, the new cuddly-looking pandas at the National Zoo, who are due to go on public display this month. And when the fish, reptiles, and marine and freshwater invertebrates in question are confined to tanks with scratched glass in the poorly lighted basement of a 68-year-old government office building, Bradley’s job is even harder.

To the trained eye, the National Aquarium is a treasure. “It’s beautiful,” says Samantha Bohlinger, a local pet-store worker with a degree in marine biology, whose idea of a dream job is working at the aquarium. Those who find it disappointing “don’t know what they’re looking at,” she says. “It’s better than Baltimore. Baltimore shows you more of what’s out there, but it’s not what you would see if you went swimming yourself.” Bohlinger notes that because the National Aquarium’s space is so dark, it not only gives visitors a more realistic experience of looking at fish underwater but also allows those who study fish to see the subtleties of the animals.

But most visitors don’t have trained eyes like Bohlinger’s, as a selection of popular tourist Web sites instantly makes clear. On the Web site devoted to D.C., visitors have registered their disappointment with comments such as “Save your money and go to the local pet shop,” and “If you are into aquariums and sea life, this is not the place to go.” The entertainment guide on the Washington Post’s Web site warns parents not to “oversell the visit to young ones.” And the venerable Fodor’s Web site doesn’t even include the National Aquarium in its list of attractions, though it does include the National Zoo and the National Museum of Natural History.

Several Baedekers offer more bad reviews. The Access guidebook calls the aquarium “a rec room one might find in a friend’s basement…a handy refuge from the summer heat.” And Let’s Go reports that “the aquarium proudly notes that it is the nation’s first over 125 years old, and its antiquated facilities are indicative of its age.”

“If you want to go to a real aquarium, you go to Baltimore,” says Bob Hanson, a spokesperson for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which is part of the Commerce Department and has offices in the Hoover Building. Commerce Department employees, who enjoy the privilege of being able to visit the aquarium without having to pay the $3 admission fee, don’t even seek solitude in its quiet dark space, opting instead for the building’s law library or courtyard. According to Hanson, the only time most Commerce employees are likely to pass through the aquarium is during Fish Week in June, when NOAA hosts its annual fish fry.

Naomi Rose leans down by a tank and looks up toward the surface of the water from the bottom.

“Just looking for scum,” she explains. She doesn’t find much.

Rose is the marine mammal expert with the Humane Society of the United States. She agreed to accompany me to the National Aquarium because she had never been here before. (Not housing any marine mammals, the aquarium doesn’t fall within Rose’s normal beat.) But she had received some complaints from visitors, mostly about the shark tank: “A woman called me six months ago—she sounded like a tourist—complaining that the tank was too small.”

Modern shark tanks, Rose explains, are larger and circular or oval, so that the sharks can keep swimming without having to turn sharp corners. Rose reads the sign about the sharks’ neurological disorder. She is less alarmed that the sharks have a disorder of unknown origin than she is that the staff doesn’t have the resources to figure out what is wrong. “If they don’t have the expertise to handle whatever may come up, then that’s troubling.”

But what really makes Rose stop short isn’t any of the fish, but a glass display filled with inanimate objects, such as a tortoiseshell hair band, a can of turtle soup, and a photo of a guitar made of a turtle’s shell. Presumably the exhibit has something to do with endangered species, but there’s no sign saying so. “It’s like a museum of a museum! It’s so Victorian!” Rose declares.

For the most part, Rose pronounces the freshwater tanks and their inhabitants to be in good condition. The aquarium was originally designed for freshwater fish; saltwater creatures were added in the ’60s. But many of the tanks have not adapted well, and the salt has visibly corroded the metal frames.

“It’s not the worst I’ve ever seen,” Rose tells me later. “There are places in the Midwest, in tiny towns where there is no aquarium or zoo for miles. They have mammals and birds, too. They’re pretty grim. The worst places have people who don’t care who are ‘taking care’ of the animals. At least here, they care.”

Rose does, however, estimate that roughly a third of the aquatic creatures in the National Aquarium are “functionally mistreated,” because they reside in less-than-perfect conditions in old, beat-up tanks.

“People think it’s hard to torture fish, but it isn’t,” says Sue Pressman, an animal-welfare expert who, when she was wildlife director for the Humane Society of the United States 20 years ago, included the National Aquarium on a list of the nation’s 10 worst zoos. “If you give them a bad place to live, then they do suffer.”

If the once-modern aquarium has fallen on hard times, it’s certainly not the fault of its dedicated staff, who struggle mightily to keep the critters they care for healthy under less than state-of-the-art conditions.

Every morning around 8 o’clock, an hour before the aquarium opens, Bradley makes the rounds, checking each tank to see if the inhabitants are doing OK. Bradley doesn’t look at his charges impassively, as visitors do, but rather with the touch of anxiety that parents have when looking over their children. Is that African cichlid breathing too hard? Is that eel breathing too slowly? Are the puffer fish’s eyes cloudy?

When Bradley speaks, it’s always with a low-key enthusiasm. He finds fish “cool,” “neat,” and “fun.” But, while he is neither eccentric nor flamboyant, his passion is evident in the perpetual commentary he offers at each tank. “I never get tired of talking about fish,” he warns. “So stop me if I talk too much.” Bradley is no aquatic-rights fanatic, though. He admits to eating fish, although he won’t touch any species that he knows is the victim of overfishing.

At one of the freshwater tanks in the center of the aquarium, Bradley does his best to meet the challenge posed by a sticker on the glass: “Can you find 20 fish?” The fish in this tank all employ some form of camouflage, so Bradley has to be patient to catch a glimpse of them all. Moving along, he comes to the Texas cichlid, which he has treated before for a viral infection. He scrutinizes the fish closely for nodes on the gills but finds nothing amiss.

Any fish that are not doing well Bradley quarantines in a separate tank and bathes in various medicinal solutions. He meticulously records the dosages they receive in a log. Keeping careful records is not something his predecessors did very well: The alligator gar in Tank 54, for example, is about 50 years old, but no one knows for sure because there is no record of the gar’s arrival. In a lab near his office, Bradley also performs necropsies on all the fish that die. The aquarium loses as many as one fish a week, which experts say is a normal rate.

In the lab window, Bradley, a shark and ray expert by training, has set up a small display on shark eggs. Bradley knows it’s a modest exhibit. He came to the aquarium three years ago, after earning his master’s degree in marine biology from the Florida Institute of Technology and doing a volunteer stint at the aquarium in Baltimore. Like most of the other aquarists here, Bradley is fairly young; the aquarium likely couldn’t afford anyone with many more years of experience. Working at the National Aquarium is good training, he says. Rather than being assigned to one section, as he was in Baltimore, here he gets to do a little of everything.

Bradley is keenly aware that these days it’s not enough to have a degree in marine biology if you want to build a career in the aquarium world. Dolphin trainers at the Baltimore aquarium earn only a few dollars an hour more than minimum wage, despite the fact that the aquarium pulls in $24 million in revenue a year. Aquariums are now big business, and increasingly those who lead them have to know as much about marketing as they do about ichthyology. A prime example is Ted Beattie, the president of the Shedd Aquarium, formerly the marketing director of the Cincinnati Zoo.

The National Aquarium’s staff of 10, five of whom are aquarists and five of whom work in the gift shop or at the admission desk, scarcely have time for marketing. They’re busy doing everything else, from dispelling myths about the aquarium’s inhabitants (“Don’t run in a zigzag away from an alligator. Just run.”) to touching up the mural by the entrance.

When the eye-straining small print of the exhibit signs needs to be replaced, the staffers type up their own signs, which are generally an improvement on the old ones. Some even answer questions before you can think to ask them, such as the one near Tank 16, which reads: “Although it may seem that way, the moray eel is not stuck.”

On a chilly December afternoon, Bradley changes the water in the shark-egg exhibit. He does it like a stranded motorist siphoning gas into a tank, sucking on a tube to get the water to flow.

“It’s hard,” Bradley says, reflecting on his beleaguered basement domain, “with the other aquarium just up the road, and with it being [thought of as the only] National Aquarium,” Bradley says.

At that moment, some of the Charlottesville students suddenly swarm in front of the lab window. Dozens of eyes peer in, searching for something to capture their attention. Looking out at his pint-sized audience, Bradley jokes, “Sometimes it feels like we’re the animals.”

A few days later, aquarist Kelly Garner, a petite redhead with glasses, is perched on a ladder. With a screwdriver, she is scraping away the crusted sealant around the window of the slipper lobster tank, which has sprung a leak. Scraping off the old sealant is just the first step in resealing the tank, a process that will wind up taking several weeks.

Down the hall, resident herpetologist Melanie Litton has been putting the finishing touches on a new anemone exhibit she has built from scratch. She had to cut the wood to build the stand for the tank, assemble the pipes to carry water to and from it, set up the filter, and cut more wood to put over the tank for the lights to hang from. Not generally the kinds of skills you pick up when you are studying for a degree in marine biology.

At a larger aquarium, there would be a separate team of tank-maintenance workers to do the kind of jobs that Garner and Litton are handling. For instance, at the New England Aquarium, which opened in 1969, design curator Peter Johnson oversees a staff of 14, half of whom work solely on designing exhibits and half of whom are what Johnson calls “fabricators.” Johnson recently sent an artist to Africa for the sole purpose of painting the fishes that would be included in the aquarium’s current Lake Victoria exhibit.

But the aquarists at the National Aquarium have little choice but to do their best with what they have. They get by with elbow grease, ingenuity, and camaraderie, which is apparent at lunchtime. In an office marked off limits to anyone but “offishial staff,” the five aquarists consume the lunches they keep in a small fridge. On a recent afternoon, four high school volunteers wearing identical purple T-shirts sit shooting the bull with the staff. One of the volunteers is the girl who often minds the touch tank. “Brackish water used to give me a rash,” she says, “but now I’m used to it.”

Not surprisingly, the demands of the job can discourage people from staying very long. With the exception of Harry Chow, who has worked at the aquarium for 15 years, most of the aquarists have been there less than five years. Citing the conditions, as well as poor management by its overseers, the National Aquarium Society, a former employee who asked that his name not be used calls the aquarium “a very frustrating place to work.”

And potentially hazardous—or so Allison Rickard, presentation and promotions manager for Guest Services Inc., the private contractor that manages the aquarium, tries to tell me. Through Rickard, the National Aquarium Society directors have forbidden me from following the workers as they go about their work behind the exhibition space, citing “liability reasons.” Their high school volunteers, meanwhile, traipse around the space, which director Brenda Low describes as having “lots of pipes” and “wet floors.” The high-schoolers all have signed liability waivers from their parents.

“That’s weird,” says a former National Aquarium director when I tell him of the restrictions placed on me. Both the former director and Rose note that at most aquariums, such access is not a problem. “Maybe they’re embarrassed,” he ventures. “The place is falling apart.”

The National Aquarium began as an aquarium and government hatchery in Woods Hole, Mass., in 1871. Ten years later, it moved briefly to the corner of 6th Street and Independence Avenue NW. Then, when the Commerce Department building, now called the Hoover Building, was completed, in 1932, new facilities for the aquarium were constructed in the basement.

According to an April 1936 department press release titled “Uncle Sam’s Fish,” a visitor to the basement of the 8-acre building would find “one of the most attractive features of Washington…a place of beauty with its green terrazzo floor and walls, its artistic columns of terrazzo finish with marble base and cap, and graceful palm…a colorful background for the glassed-in habitat of the fish.”

At the time, the aquarium was considered state-of-the-art. “A new experiment in painted backgrounds to create ideas of distance has been tried most successfully in several of the tanks,” touted the release.

Commerce officials also recruited the curator of the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, Fred G. Orsinger. Orsinger, the 1936 release noted, “has the reputation of being able to keep fish, in confinement, alive longer than any person in the United States.”

Orsinger, a heating contractor by training who picked up fish husbandry as a hobby, had a bit of P.T. Barnum in him. Even in its heyday, the aquarium’s principal visitors were students. To attract the wider public, Orsinger made a point of stocking the aquarium not only with regional species but also critters such as Super Diamond, the two-headed turtle. Visitors took perverse pleasure in watching one of Super Diamond’s heads snatch food the other head was swallowing, presumably headed toward the same stomach. After Super Diamond died, Orsinger’s successor followed up with another double-headed turtle, Siamese Sue, who died after three years in captivity.

Then there was Spencer the sturgeon. Spencer was something of a celebrity before the aquarium moved to 14th and Constitution, having survived an application of chlorine in the city water supply in 1920 that wiped out his three brothers and left him in bad shape. Orsinger kept Spencer’s star bright by feeding stories about him to the press. According to a Jan. 14, 1932, article in the Washington Star, aquarium officials planned “to comb the aristocracy of sturgeons to procure him a mate.” Reporters always knew they could turn to Orsinger when they were desperate for copy, recalls his son, Bill Orsinger, a retired physician who lives in Northern Virginia.

When Spencer entered “piscatorial eternity,” in 1935, Orsinger eulogized him in the Post. “What Jumbo was to the pachyderm family, what Babe Ruth was to baseball, that’s what Spencer was to acipenser rubicundus,” Orsinger said. Apparently, however, he and other aquarium officials had been a little too picky about finding Spencer a mate. According to another news story, Spencer died two nights before his “wedding.”

By the time Orsinger stepped down as director, in 1949, 250,000 visitors were filing through Room B-077 each year. Yet the aquarium had already begun to fall behind the times.

No one noticed the aquarium’s decline more than Rep. Michael J. Kirwan, a 73-year-old fisherman from Youngstown, Ohio, who in 1962 dubbed the aquarium “a national disgrace” and “a shame.” Kirwan was a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee, as well as chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. He used his considerable clout to force his pet project—$20 million for a new national fisheries center and aquarium in downtown Washington—through Congress. But he ran afoul of Democratic Sen. William Proxmire of Wisconsin, who thought it was ridiculous to have a fisheries research center on the Potomac, which he called “the dirtiest, stinkingest river in the world for its size.” Proxmire cited other, more useful purposes for the money, such as slum clearance, welfare, and fighting juvenile delinquency.

But Kirwan’s biggest opposition came from the Post, which fired off one editorial after another mocking his efforts. In October 1962, after Congress had approved $10 million for a new aquarium, the Post wrote: “It is a pity that the recipients of foreign aid are not fish. If India were inhabited by sturgeon and salmon instead of mere people, then New Delhi would have the compassionate support of Rep. Michael J. Kirwan of Ohio, a legislator whose eyes water when he thinks of finny friends. ‘Executive extravagance,’ roar Mr. Kirwan’s brethren when money is sought for essential public purposes, ‘the dollar is in peril!’ But though the republic may sink, the fish will swim.”

President John F. Kennedy signed the bill anyway. Renowned designers Charles and Ray Eames drafted plans for the structure. The designated site for the new aquarium was Hains Point, which was to be connected to the National Mall by a pedestrian bridge modeled after the Ponte Vecchio in Florence. The proposed aquarium was a large glass amphitheater-shaped building, a sharp counterpoint to the classical columns and dome of the nearby Jefferson Memorial. Inside there were to be a movie theater; a large tank with a pilot whale, sharks, porpoises, and turtles; and displays showing a complete ecological cycle of aquatic life, from mountain stream to river to sea. The stream was to have a transparent tunnel running along its length so visitors could get a fish-eye view. On the roof there was to be an Everglades swamp, which visitors could see from above and below water. The plans also called for a restaurant that was to feature exotic seafood.

At the time, Washington attracted 6 million tourists annually. Developers estimated that the aquarium would draw 2 million visitors a year and easily meet Congress’ requirement that it pay for itself within 30 years by charging an admission price of 60 cents for adults and 30 cents for kids. Still, congressional leaders had their doubts.

In 1969, President Richard M. Nixon effectively killed the planned aquarium by impounding the construction funds.

But that same year, Boston proved the aquarium skeptics wrong when the opening of its New England Aquarium spurred revitalization of the city’s waterfront. With Boston’s success in mind, business leaders in Baltimore began planning an aquarium for the Inner Harbor. Critics of a new D.C. aquarium simply never imagined that millions of people would some day willingly fork over $15 a pop—the current price of adult admission to the Baltimore aquarium—to go see fish. Nor did they ever think that an aquarium could contribute $197 million a year to the area economy, as the Baltimore aquarium has done since it opened, according to aquarium officials.

In some sense, Baltimore stole Washington’s National Aquarium. After Nixon nixed the new D.C. aquarium’s construction, Congress ordered U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials to turn their plans over to the developers of the Baltimore aquarium, recalls Craig Phillips, who worked on the plans as the National Aquarium’s director and served as a consultant on the Baltimore project. The National Aquarium in Baltimore ultimately adopted many of the features that the Eameses had come up with for the Washington aquarium, such as exhibits that follow a complete ecological cycle and a rain forest on the top floor.

By the time Baltimore asked Congress for permission to use the National Aquarium name, in 1979, most of Washington had long written off the idea of a new aquarium. One of the few people who fought against Baltimore’s use of the name was Phillips. “I couldn’t get anyone interested in clarifying things,” he laments. “We were the National Aquarium, and the other is just the Baltimore aquarium.”

Phillips lost his job in 1982, when Interior Secretary James Watt tried, in a cost-cutting measure, to give the Washington aquarium the final heave-ho into oblivion. The obscure attraction briefly became a cause celebre. Midge Baldridge, wife of then-Commerce Secretary Malcolm Baldridge, formed the National Aquarium Society, which, along with Guest Services, took over the aquarium. But although the society’s founders may have saved the aquarium, they couldn’t afford Phillips’ salary, so they let him go after 23 years. The basement menagerie has carried on ever since without government funding.

There is a rare breed of visitor who cherishes the hush of the aquarium’s darkened hallways and the soothing sight of beautiful creatures gliding by.

The National Aquarium may not be much, but at least it doesn’t have the overproduced dolphin show you get at the aquarium in Baltimore. The show, which takes place in a setting that looks like a Sea World knockoff under a metal tent, consists of dolphins named Nani and Cobie jumping, bleating, and wagging their flippers to a slick music-video accompaniment while nimble female trainers in wet suits narrate the action into headset mikes reminiscent of Madonna circa the Blonde Ambition tour.

By comparison, the solitude of the National Aquarium in Washington is downright therapeutic. Those who regard it that way treat it like a good dive bar—a quirky, hidden treasure.

But the board of the National Aquarium Society doesn’t want the aquarium to be known as a cozy oddity. “We want to bring it into the new millennium. It’s a great place to create fantasies and dreams and to learn,” says Low. “We will represent all 50 states and the territories. We want it to be the National Aquarium—literally.”

Low says the aquarium plans to build a more elaborate touch tank and a new shark tank that would fill the center of the aquarium. Eventually, the National Aquarium Society directors would like all the exhibits in the aquarium to look like the alligator exhibit, which opened earlier this year.

But at only a tenth the size of most major aquariums, the National Aquarium, even with the planned improvements, can hardly expect to compete with the likes of Boston or Baltimore. And National Aquarium Society officials insist that they don’t expect it to. Instead, the board has narrowed the aquarium’s mission to showcasing the nation’s aquatic life for District schoolchildren, who are admitted into the aquarium for free.

“We’re a small organization, and we really try to serve our constituency,” says Nina Selin, chair of the society’s board of directors. “Our focus is to educate D.C. public schoolchildren. I don’t think they get around much.”

The educational highlight of the aquarium’s year is Shark Day, in August, a week before Shark Week on the Discovery Channel. It’s perhaps the only time of year when there is a line to get inside. More than 1,800 visitors flood the basement exhibit hall. Kids make aquatic-themed crafts, while Flumpa, a singing and dancing tree frog, and Harriet the Hammerhead entertain them. Last year, staffers from the Center for Marine Conservation, a national conservation organization based in Washington, were also on hand, to promote shark and ocean conservation. In the past, the aquarium has also hosted workshops for District teachers. “It’s a wonderful place!” says Carolyn Kornegay, content specialist for science for the District school system.

“It’s been user-friendly for us all this time,” says Ed Rupert of the School Without Walls, who has brought his zoology class to the aquarium for 25 years. “Not only do [the aquarium staff] help me as a teacher when I bring groups, they are very willing to help out and do special things. They’ve taken some of our kids as interns.”

But for every teacher like Rupert, there is at least another like Sandra Jenkins. Jenkins, who teaches science at Stuart-Hobson Middle School, says she stopped taking her students to the aquarium five years ago. She found the place “limited in what it presented.” She now takes her class to the National Zoo and the National Museum of Natural History instead.

The Humane Society’s Rose points out that, except for the interactive computer attached to the alligator exhibit, there is hardly anything for kids to pull, press, or crank. Most of the tanks are too high for smaller children to see. Groups of schoolchildren sometimes gather in the Crab Cove, a room off the main hallway that is bare except for a souvenir coin squisher, a small invertebrate tank, and a case containing a chameleon and a dead plant. But otherwise, there are no classrooms, and no guides to the aquarium for students to follow, according to Rickard. Except at feeding time, there often isn’t anyone near the tanks to explain the biology of the fish—not even at the touch tank.

“Without a docent, a touch tank has no point,” says Rose. “A docent protects animals and interacts with children. These are animals you can pull things off of.”

Even if they prefer to learn at their own pace, only the most ardent amateur ichthyologists would take the time to read the small print on virtually all of the signage. Some of the displays have a mishmash of old signs and new ones printed out on a color printer, then laminated and pasted up. Some of the photos on the signs are intact, but others are missing. Some signs have hard-to-see line drawings.

“I don’t know what school groups get out of it,” says Rose. “If there aren’t a lot of things for kids to do, then all they’re doing is looking at animals. They’re sure not reading the signs. If all they’re doing is looking at animals, then all they’re getting is neural stimulation. It could be in a hall of gems. To them it’s just a lot of pretty things. At least with rocks, animals don’t have to suffer.”

“It was a dreary little place. A very sad place. We worked as hard as we could to renovate it and steal a little space here and there,” says Selin. Selin has held her chairmanship for nearly 20 years, and aquarium insiders say she controls what happens—and what doesn’t—at the aquarium. During her tenure, she has persuaded Commerce Department officials to give the aquarium the space where the entrance, gift shop, lab, and offices are now located. “We more than doubled the size of the place,” she notes.

The thrifty efforts of the society’s directors haven’t always proved quite as successful. Baldridge once convinced the owners of an exhibit at a world’s fair to donate the televisions from their exhibit to the aquarium, which was to run its own programming on the sets. “We got someone to come in and install them for free—that’s how we try to do things, by gifts and donations,” explains Selin. “We went down there one day and someone had stolen every one of the televisions! So we decided to put tanks in there. I don’t think anybody’s going to steal a tank.”

If the society’s directors sound cheap, they say it’s because they don’t have a lot of cash to throw around. In 1998, the National Aquarium Society reported $176,468 in revenue and $60,857 in expenses, for a profit of $115,611. (These figures don’t include staff salaries, which are paid by Guest Services.) To raise money for the aquarium, the society rents out the facility for social gatherings. “We must be the cheapest event place in town,” says Selin. (Renters can bring in their own caterers and music.) And anyone can also adopt a set of fish, for $35 to $80 (but never a specific fish, lest it die and disappoint the donor, Selin notes). Or adopt a tank. The larger tanks go for $10,000.

But critics say the National Aquarium could do more. According to the society’s 1998 tax returns, the group has $1.1 million invested in mutual funds. One former employee argues that the society’s directors simply refuse to spend it. “My impression is that they do nothing at all,” he says. “Commerce has helped a lot. NOAA tried to get involved, but that didn’t work out.” NOAA once detailed a staff member to the aquarium, but the board ignored his suggestions, the former employee says. “We need 8 to 10 million dollars to make it a modern facility. It’s really unfortunate there wasn’t anybody with vision there at the society. It’s a small, intimate aquarium. It could be really cool.”

Selin counters that the money is a necessary contingency fund. “We don’t have Peter to pay Paul. We use the money for our projects, for pay raises. And we don’t take in a lot of money, because we don’t charge much,” she says. “This is a labor of love.”

Maybe the board’s choice isn’t a bad one. Aquarium design experts argue that throwing more money into the basement aquarium is little better than flushing it down the toilet. The Hoover Building itself is crumbling. “The water system is ancient,” says a former employee. “When a breaker blows, you don’t always know where it is in the building.” The General Services Administration has slated the building for renovation sometime in the next few years.

Former director Phillips and others believe a major aquarium in Washington would draw enough people to be self-sufficient, even with another aquarium 45 minutes away. Washington attracts 21 million visitors a year, compared with the 13 million Baltimore receives and the 12 million who go to Boston annually. The aquariums in Baltimore and Boston draw between 1.3 million and 1.7 million visitors every year. With the opening of a new convention center downtown in 2003, Brian Ullman, a spokesperson for the Washington Convention and Visitors Bureau, predicts, “there will be a jump in overall visitors to the city and stronger demand for all our attractions.”

But Selin doubts that city leaders, public or private, will be willing to make the investment. She points out that the Monterey Bay Aquarium, built 16 years ago on the site of an old cannery, cost $16 million.

“I don’t see corporations or the city or the federal government backing it,” Selin says. “We would be ecstatic, but all the places that build aquariums are usually sponsored by the city or the state. You really need the support financially of where you are, and that would be the D.C. government. The mayor has a lot [of things] on his plate, and I don’t think this is one of them. To get an appropriation through Congress, someone really has to care. We just don’t have the clout, really.”

But a look at the society’s board of directors reveals that clout is one of the few assets the aquarium can really boast of. The voting directors include Mary Kennedy, wife of Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy; Eleanor Merrill, co-publisher of the Washingtonian with her husband, Philip Merrill; and Roy Pfautch, a Republican political consultant and fundraiser, who in the early ’80s helped broker a $1 million contribution from Japanese interests to Eureka College, President Ronald Reagan’s alma mater. Among the aquarium’s honorary directors are Alma Brown, widow of former Commerce Secretary Ron Brown, and Peatsy Hollings, wife of Sen. Fritz Hollings of South Carolina. Selin’s husband, Ivan Selin, is the former chair of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Honorary director Jim Fowler, best known for hosting Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom television show, even has experience raising funds for his own wildlife park, which he is currently developing in Brunswick, Ga.

Selin insists that the society’s directors are “constantly meeting in small groups doing things.”

If the society’s directors don’t feel up to lobbying public officials for renovation funds or a new aquarium, then aquarium experts have suggested that they take another look at ways of sprucing up the aquarium’s subterranean facilities. Though there is no sign explaining the layout, tanks with aquatic life from the East Coast slowly give way to species from the Gulf of Mexico, then the West Coast. There are also tanks with fish from Asia and Africa. All told, the aquarium has about 1,000 specimens of aquatic life, representing about 200 species—an ambitious collection for such a small space. Some suggest that a small facility like the National Aquarium might make better use of its space by having fewer but better displays—for instance, having rotating exhibits, or a focus on local fauna. Such exhibits might be more effective in bringing home the conservation message.

But Selin doesn’t think brown catfish from the Anacostia will do the job. “We really feel we are in a federal building and this is the National Aquarium,” she says. “We do have a Chesapeake exhibit and a couple of really local tanks.

“Look, no one wants to read. People only want to hear and see. People don’t want a lot of information. They want to be entertained,” Selin continues. “People want to see colorful fish, and colorful fish don’t grow in this area. I would think if it was just local fish, it would be less visited and less useful. We try to entertain. That’s the only way we are going to catch people’s attention.” CP

Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Charles Steck.