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Why the hell is there an aquarium in the basement of the Department of Commerce? And why is it so pathetic? It looks like a high-school science project.

The aquarium isn’t pathetic-it’s vintage. In fact, when the aquarium was built as an original part of the Department of Commerce Building in 1932, it was considered a “credit to the nation?[with] its high, cathedral-like vaulted ceilings, gleaming marble pools, and brass trim framing its exhibit tanks,” according to The National Aquarium Society’s official history.

But why build an aquarium in the Commerce Building in the first place? It was all about bureaucracy: At the time it was built, the National Aquarium was a part of the Fisheries Commission, which was a part of the commerce department. And since the building was state-of-the-art, it was the perfect place to display the Fisheries Commission’s collection of American fish, which they had been collecting for research since 1873.

And for 50 years, the aquarium attracted a steady stream of tourists and school children. But in 1982, the government decided to get out of the aquarium business, according to Robert Ramin, executive director of The National Aquarium in Washington, D.C. Rather than close their doors, the aquarium formed the National Aquarium Society, a private nonprofit, to find alternative financing, though the Department of Commerce volunteered to maintain the physical plant and continue to provide utilities to the aquarium.

In 2003, the National Aquarium in Baltimore gained operating control of the D.C. National Aquarium as a means of extending its presence closer to the source of federal funding. Under the agreement, Ramin says, the National Aquarium “complements Baltimore’s Aquarium as we celebrate America’s aquatic treasures.”

Every Monday, the ‘Huh?’ Bub takes your questions. Got one?