Monday, December 30, 2019

Johnny Morris' Wonders of Wildlife National Museum and Aquarium Part One

It was Thanksgiving and we were on the road and looking for something to do on one of the few days that America shuts down. Luckily there is one place in Springfield, Missouri that was open – the WOW - or for those of you who have never heard of it, the Johnny Morris' Wonders of Wildlife National Museum and Aquarium.
Wikipedia notes: “It is located adjacent to the Bass Pro Shops National headquarters, and is named for the Bass Pro Shops' founder. The 350,000 square foot facility consists of two major sections. The Wildlife Museum presents a series of immersive wildlife galleries containing taxidermied animals from around the world displayed in elaborate and detailed dioramas representing a variety of natural habitats, as well as historic artifacts, artwork, films, and special exhibits, including the Boone and C
rockett Club's North American Heads and Horns Collection of big game mounts.”
Now at the start I will say this Bone Rooms is going to seem a little schizophrenic as there are two very distinct and different issues with the WOW, and I would like to make sure everyone understands the nature of my confusion.
To begin…I loved it. I think the WOW is one of the most incredible institutions I have ever visited…and as readers of this series would know, I’ve visited a few. I cannot think of another institution that has spent this kind of money on its displays – and the amount must have been enormous as it’s all there for everyone to see. Seriously, the displays are of the highest quality and jaw dropping.
Even the stairs are amazing
The best of the world’s museums might contain 4 or 5 amazing displays – well the thing about the WOW is it’s hard to pick a display that isn’t of the highest quality. There is so much – soooo much – I simply cannot do the place justice in a single post…so we’ll be splitting this into two – the first being the aquarium as it was the first part I visited.
The second will be the museum part of the institution. This will also hold the more controversial side of the WOW – which I am sorry to say is substantial in my eyes.


The WOW first opened in 2001 with far fewer displays and only a few hundred live animals. This original design closed in 2007 as the owners felt it was somewhat underwhelming and decided to put some serious money behind a new revamped exhibition. At first the expansion was budgeted at $25 million and doubling the size of the WOW – but again the owners baulked at what they were seeing, deciding to up the money and size again. This new updated museum was opened in 2017 at a cost around $80 million – an incredible sum for a museum of any sort - though doing my research I think that’s the lowest estimate. Some suggest the total was closer to $300 million.
A 300-million-dollar museum that almost no one has ever heard of...amazing.

Aquarium Adventure – The Great Ocean Hall

This is not your usual natural history museum. The immense size of it is unfathomable and the images attached here simply won’t do it justice…I mean the main central foyer has not one, not two but numerous life-sized whales soaring above your head. This includes a stunning exhibit of a sperm whale fighting a Kraken-like giant squid.

As if this wasn’t impressive enough, there are several vessels hanging from the roof or sitting in their own pool – and these are not just any boats. The first is the Avalon, the fishing vessel made in New Zealand for famed western author Zane Grey.
With this vessel Grey sailed much of the South Pacific, fishing in waters off Tahiti, New Zealand and even NSW – bizarrely at a place called Bermagui, which I have just returned from after going on a little fossicking venture to find Devonian plant fossils from just inland of this beach.
The other boat of interest is a large schooner that’s the sister-ship to the Pilar, a vessel Ernest Hemingway caught so many of his prize-winning fish from. The entire lay out is incredible, with the enormous vessel suspended one story off the ground….and all this is just in the foyer leading into the aquarium.

To enter you pass under/through the enormous donut-like tank dominating the middle of this space, and then on to the other half of the Great Ocean Hall. This 360-degree display is listed as bring the depths of the ocean to the middle of America, and it’s an impressive tank. Full of windows and light that can be viewed from both sides, along the bottom you can get close to living reef systems and the marine life that occupies them. 

Above swim schools of large fish, essentially doing laps about the circular tank. Some of these zoom along, while others seem to just be slowly patrolling.

Exiting the tank you encounter the hypnotic ‘bait-ball’, a circular tank filled with a tornado of schooling herring spinning about dizzily in a column-like aquarium that’s not only lit well, but can be viewed from various angles as you move about the multi-story building.

NOTE: This is one of the most striking things about this aquarium, the access you get to the tanks. A lot of great design work has gone into how a visitor interacts with these enormous aquariums, with multi-viewing windows created at every conceivable angle. As you move about the numerous levels you will view the same tank at a different height, giving you a brand-new perspective. It’s very clever and extremely effective to create the idea you are seeing far more exhibits than you actually are.

Passing through the other side of the donut you enter the second half of the Great Ocean Hall. Here you’re confronted by the life-size figures of a humpback whale and calf hanging from the roof … I told you this hall is big… there are numerous whales hanging from the roof!
Multi-levelled, a visitor wanders up and through several curious displays – such as the Hall of Fishing Presidents – a section dedicated to the American presidents who were fond of dropping a line in the stream.
As you will see in part two, this will be a theme running throughout the entire museum – highlight the US Presidents the designers felt helped create or enjoyed the modern American wilderness.
Every nook and cranny has been filled in this hall, with the walls festooned with huge numbers of large fish like tuna, sailfish and sharks swimming across their surfaces. Meanwhile the stairs leading down hide a great display of an enormous hunting Great White stalking seals. There are even a pair of tiger sharks, showing everyone just how enormous those predators can become.
Scratching my head, I checked out the most prominent display in this room, a fishing boat riding a rough ocean swell…I mean it takes up the far end of the hall, arguably the most prominent space in the room. On closer look, this display has an insane amount of detail in it.
The vessel has a stormy sky high above, filled with seabirds of every type wheeling about looking for a free meal. The ocean itself is amazingly done, and swimming underneath the boat is not only a school of tuna but dolphins as well.
For me the most astonishing exhibit in this room was the enormous saltwater tank that sits opposite the fishing boat. Here you will find a single window, perhaps three stories tall, containing the Great Barrier Reef. Patrolling the various forms of coral - that help form the world's biggest single structure made by a living organism - are enormous potato cod, groupers and undulating moray eels.
You get a serious idea of how intelligent some fish are as some take a real interest in you looking at them, leaving you wondering just who in on display here?

Phew…first display done!

Shipwreck Reef

Passing through a pair of glass retractable doors you enter a second, possibly even more creative display. Though overall the area is smaller than the Great Hall, there are more individual tanks and it’s no less impressive. The theme is an old shipwreck that has been colonised by the denizens of the deep, and throughout the various tanks you can see bits and pieces of the wreck, creating a great look to the area.

The first of these tanks holds a replica mast of “the boat that Johnny Morris intentionally sunk off the Ft. Lauderdale coast to build an artificial habitat for ocean life, known as the Offshore Angler. Morris’ goal was to show how humans can have a positive impact (Lauren Barnas –”.

Again, every available space is utilised, with models of numerous shark species darting about the roof and the tops of these tall tanks chasing fish, creating the illusion you’re walking along the reef floor. Even the buildings infrastructure seems to be left exposed, adding to the idea the shipwreck is all about you.

Swamp at Night

Do I have a favourite section? Yes…but that comes later…though I will say a very close second is the swamp/river/ display. You begin by walking into a southern bijou, crossing wooden planking and gator skull sporting signposts, with huge mossy cypress trees lining the path.

This feels very Disneyland to me, and I do not mean that in a derogatory way. Disney theme parks have a fantastic and fun eye for detail, and that’s very much on exhibit here.

Again, this is a multi-level display that you walk through, around, over and under. You pass and enter buildings, from hunting shacks to bait shops and, as this is a nocturnal area, the lighting is dark and intimate. This helps highlight the numerous living animals, including owls, bears and alligators on display. There is even a swing bridge over numerous alligator pens including some real monsters.
Its again full of nice little touched, like a fallen log that actually houses a terrarium filled with denizens like salamanders.
Jewel of the crown is the rare albino alligator and yes – for all you palaeontology fans out there who follow this series – a Sarcosuchus skull. The giant Gondwana croc from the Mesozoic is not the only prehistoric critter on display here though, but it’s a ice touch to show a fossils crocodilian next to living specimens…again, where would you see that?

You travel down through the winding display, visiting the local streams and rivers of the nearby Ozarks, and a mangrove shoreline, filled with fish, water birds (even a pelican) and swimming otters.
One of the fish on display is the paddlefish (Polyodon spathula), a species under serious threat and whose fossils go right back to the late Cretaceous. The fossils show these fish have remained unchanged in all of that time.
As you move further down, spiraling around, though and under the numerous fish tanks, one of these is a large aquarium with a tunnel you can walk though. The River Monsters display contains some of the world’s biggest freshwater fish, including sturgeon, alligator gar and arapaima from the amazon.
Living fossils that you can get right up to…amazing. With all the ancient species on display here, I would suggest the aquarium rename this section Prehistoric rivers, or something like that.

Throughout these tanks are small tunnels for kids and more adventurous adults to climb into. These end in a bubble-like viewing platform within the tank, making you part of the display as fish swim all about you. This part of the aquarium ends in an enormous room with glass walls and a glass ceiling under the largest tank in this area. There are fish on all sides and above, making you feel like you’re on display. It’s a great effect.


The final region to explore on this level is the great southern rainforest in the amazon. Not only are there piranhas of various types swimming through the eye-level tanks, there are also electric eels, freshwater stingrays and more arapaima. 
Next to the tanks are terrariums full of poison dart frogs, anacondas, tarantulas, toucans and even a sloth. This is all situated around a huge interior waterfall that not only sounds amazing, I dare say helps aerate and give some momentum to the water flowing through the aquariums.
I believe you are now at the very lowest level of the entire museum, and there are several tunnels here under the aquariums above, giving you a unique view of how these ecosystems work. 
This is a world of snake-like tree roots and deep-water predators lurking in the shadows, watching life above swim by, searching for a potential victim. It’s well done and I could have stayed and explored this area for hours – but as always time was short and there was so much more to see.

Marvels of the Deep

This level also contains the deep-sea displays. Large tanks again dominate the area, full of things like octopus, seahorses, giant spider crabs, and not just the standard medusa jellyfish you see at most aquariums – here they do things bigger. One tank contains large jellyfish, their heart-like pumping bells trailing lengthy tendrils of tentacle armed with nematocysts.

Here is another stop for paleo-fans. One section opens into an exhibition of various shells from all over the world. Among these are fossil ammonites, trilobites and a display of nautilus shells.

There’s also an enormous gallery for the bass fishing hall of fame – which I did not enter as I really did need to move on, but the thing looked enormous, full of plaques and displays of famous bass-fishing folks. Apparently, that’s a big thing in the South. 

I have seen images in my research and apparently ends in a three-story tall log cabin. Kind of wish I had spent the time walking down that passage, but alas I didn’t. There’s also a NASCAR /motorsport display full of vehicles I assume the company behind the museum sponsored. Again, I got nowhere near it as there was simply no time and as an Australian, I’m not exactly a NASCAR fan so it held no interest to me.

Finally, this part of the museum ends in the depths of the Ozarks. Purpose built caves with dark passages and sounds of dripping water (as well as real dripping water) assault your ears as you snake thought the gloom past stalactites and – well what I can only call a bat-tank. Just like the aquariums, this is an elongated display, allowing the numerous living bats inside the space they need to fly about and perch.

Though dark, there are a few little spots of illumination, often lined with a bit of fruit to encourage what’s normally only dark shadows flitting through your vision to land, eat and allow a more detailed glimpse of these mammals. This passage also ends with yet another tank filled with fish that prefer dark waters and you get an underside view of the beaver den seen way back up at the swamp – with live beavers.  

Features that deserves attention for the fact that it doesn’t really draw attention to itself are the lighting within these displays and the glass. Subtle, bright when its needed, dark when the idea is to create atmosphere or claustrophobia – or better yet, mimic the environment being created (such as the swamp), the lighting gives you the feeling you’re really exploring these displays, not just walking through it.
The tanks themselves use crystal clear glass, giving you an unrestricted view of every animal living within them. Only once did I find myself wishing someone would come along and clean some grime from within or without the tank, and along with the lighting you receive an almost miraculous view of the animals within. 
I also applaud not only the life-like environments of the tanks but the way they are structured. Very few are small and box-like, trapping the animals in a sterile, restricted environment. Most are filled with branches, logs or clever hidey holes, and the tanks themselves are usually in a ring format, allowing fish and other animals to really swim in at least two directions without ever reaching a barrier.   

Thinking about it – these two articles will be separated into the living side of the institution and the dead … err… static displays.
So, with the living done, it’s on to the recently deceased part of the museum.


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