Boston has had four aquariums over the past 150 years: the Boston Aquarial Gardens (1859), the Boston Aquarial Gardens and Zoological Gardens (1861), the South Boston Aquarium (1912), and the present-day New England Aquarium (1969).
By Jerry Ryan
Download this PDF book for a full, illustrated history of the aquariums summarized on this page. The book covers Boston aquarial history from 1859 and features artist's renderings, diagrams, playbills and newspaper advertisements. (102 pages, 7.7 MB PC users may need to right click and select "save as.")
The path to opening the New England Aquarium, a private non-profit aquarium, in 1969 in Boston was a long and circuitous one, and the idea of what an aquarium should be has evolved over the years.
The Boston Aquarial Gardens (1859 - 1860)
Perhaps due to its turbulent history, the significance of the first aquarium in Boston, the Boston Aquarial Gardens, has been overlooked. It can however lay claim to being the first public aquarium in the world that was exclusively dedicated to the exhibition of marine life — even though this period was short-lived.
The Boston Aquarial Gardens and Zoological Gardens (1860 - 1863)
The South Boston Aquarium (1912 - 1954)
Boston was without a true aquarium for nearly fifty years after the closing of the Boston Aquarial Gardens and Zoological Gardens and it was not until 1912 that the City of Boston undertook the construction of a new aquarium.
The New England Aquarium (1969 - present)
The demise of the South Boston Aquarium left a void in Boston. Through the South Boston Aquarium, generations of Bostonians had learned to appreciate the wonders of marine life. The seed had been sown for something larger and more ambitious.
The failures of both the Boston Aquarial Gardens and the South Boston Aquarium were instructive. The first was a purely mercantile venture that measured its success by its profits. The second was a civic institution with very limited goals, severe budget restrictions, and political pressures. Even prior to the closing of the South Boston Aquarium, a replacement was envisaged as a private, non-profit organization that would incorporate the best elements of the previous aquariums, while avoiding their pitfalls.
At first, a small, modern aquarium was projected as part of the Museum of Science and preliminary studies were undertaken in this direction. In 1957, however, a group of local businesspeople formed what the New England Aquarium Corporation with the intent of founding an aquarium that would be independent. The directors of the new organization chose the then-rundown Boston waterfront as the site for their project.
The New England Aquarium was an immediate success, serving as a model for similar ventures the world over; it also helped to resurrect the Boston waterfront, changing a neglected part of the city into a civic treasure.