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Shedd Aquarium Unveils $500 Million ‘Centennial Commitment’

New strategic vision will prepare Shedd for the next 100 years, transforming the aquarium’s historic galleries, accelerating aquatic science and research, and equitably expanding access to nature for all.

January 10, 2022

A rendering of an underwater glass tunnel with sea life visible swimming around and above the people in the tunnel.

© Shedd Aquarium in collaboration with Thinc/Valerio Dewalt Train

A 3D rendering of a busy learning space featuring many learning stations in a large, open area overlooking the Chicago skyline.

© Shedd Aquarium in collaboration with Valerio Dewalt Train/Visualized Concepts

A large, open-plan learning space where people meet animals, attend a projected presentation, and do workshops at rows of desks.

© Shedd Aquarium in collaboration with Valerio Dewalt Train/Visualized Concepts

Guests sit and stand by a large, lushy-planted freshwater fish habitat.

© Shedd Aquarium in collaboration with Thinc/Visualized Concepts/Valerio Dewalt Train

CHICAGO (Jan. 11, 2022) — Shedd Aquarium unveiled today a new, comprehensive strategic vision aimed at ensuring a more equitable, sustainable, and thriving future for people and aquatic life. Leading to the organization’s 100th anniversary in 2030, the multi-faceted Centennial Commitment is a transformational investment in Chicago communities and aquatic ecosystems around the world, requiring half a billion dollars and eight years to accomplish.

“Five years ago, we began to imagine a visionary future in response to the needs facing the aquatic animal world, our city, and our society in order to advance solutions to the biodiversity, climate, and equitable access to nature crises that exist around us,” said Dr. Bridget C. Coughlin, President and CEO of Shedd Aquarium. “To ensure a shared future where resilient ecosystems and communities thrive together, it is going to take everyone to create collective impact and change. This means engaging neighbors, schools and local businesses in authentic conversations, elevating science literacy, cultivating a shared environmental identity, and helping to inform conservation solutions that safeguard the most vulnerable species across the globe. The Centennial Commitment is our pledge to do the work that is necessary now, to ensure the next 100 years includes a world thriving with aquatic life that is sustained by people who love, understand and protect it.”

Ambitions within Shedd Aquarium’s Centennial Commitment center around three primary pillars — “For People, For Communities, For Aquatic Life” — and include:

  • Deeper community investments and partnerships that not only bring the aquarium further into Chicago neighborhoods, but also bring neighborhood-level environmental discussions and solutions into new, expansive, dedicated community spaces within Shedd’s walls.
  • A modernized aquarium experience through the transformation and restoration of the historic galleries and dynamic new exhibits that provide greater and more accessible entry points to see and connect with aquatic life as a springboard to inquiry and nature exploration.
  • New educational and experiential programs created with equity and inclusion at the center that deepen science learning, increase environmental literacy and empower futures for youth.
  • Compelling digital engagements that bring animals and conservation action programs from the aquarium into more hands and homes everywhere.
  • Advancements in exemplary animal care and welfare for the thousands of animals in our care and to increase Shedd’s capacity to respond to more wildlife in crisis; and
  • Accelerated aquatic research and science to address the largest threats to biodiversity and species extinction.

More than half of the $500 million investment will power the programs and partnerships needed to achieve Shedd’s Centennial Commitment’s aspirations. These programs will not only be onsite, but also expand outside of the aquarium walls into communities, on the water and in nature, in virtual experiences and informal learning engagements, and through new and expanded onsite and field-based research and science portfolios centered on restoration, rewilding, and rescue.

The remaining investment will focus on needed physical improvements to the historic Beaux-Arts-style building that will modernize the aquarium galleries and experience, enable greater accessibility, enhance animal habitats, and restore architectural features such as the opening of original windows that provide breathtaking views of the city skyline and Lake Michigan, and the creation of more welcoming and unobstructed public access to the building’s original exterior promenade and garden spaces.

“The Shedd is one of Illinois’ great gems, and this new vision for the next 100 years reflects Illinois’ leadership and their partnership in protecting the environment, educating the next generation and serving as an unmatched cultural asset,” said Illinois Governor J. B. Pritzker. “The Shedd’s Centennial Commitment will raise awareness, empathy and the importance of natural spaces and aquatic resources, further cement Illinois’ role as a national leader on climate action, educate and support more students and teachers annually, and bolster our statewide tourism investments to draw guests from all over the world. I’m proud to continue to support this great institution and applaud their deep commitment and investment in our collective future.”

Aquarium Transformation and Restoration

With support from joint venture Chicago-based general contractor partners Pepper/BMI Construction LLC, architect Valerio Dewalt Train, exhibit design partner Thinc Design, project manager JLL (Jones Lang LaSalle), accessibility partner Institute for Human Centered Design, diversity, equity and inclusion partner Trinal Inc. and more, the aquarium’s new Experience Master Plan aims to honor the historical integrity of the building’s unmistakable architecture while augmenting spaces for the needs of guests and the over 25,000 animals that call Shedd home today. 

The multi-year, four-phase construction project will begin in late 2022 and is expected to conclude in 2026 with new galleries, programs and experiences opening each year on a rolling basis. A few of the project highlights include:

  • A Modernized Experience: More accessible, interactive, highly immersive, and science-rich galleries will bring guests closer to the animals they love. Through this investment, Shedd intends to grow attendance to serve up to 2.3 million guests annually and dramatically increase the number of schoolchildren who receive a personalized learning experience facilitated by Shedd Aquarium’s informed and enthusiastic team. Additionally, as leaders in animal care and welfare, the development will re-envision all specialized water systems for the customized care and needs of over 1,100 species.
  • A New Learning Commons: An expansive new experiential hub and curiosity incubator, the Learning Commons — located at the historic core of the aquarium on the main level — will unlock significant new ways to encourage and facilitate learning. The technologically advanced, flexible space will serve as a launchpad, increasing the amount of existing classroom space to increase the total number of students engaged at Shedd from 170,000 to 230,000 annually, and provide multiple areas and more opportunities for Chicago communities to gather, engage, and connect with animals, scientists and each other.
  • A Centralized Science Hub: Five existing scientific laboratories will merge into one central, state-of-the-art Science Hub spanning microbial ecology, conservation science, water quality and chemistry, genome studies, and pathology. The integration will allow for greater proximity of work to create cutting-edge conservation science in the wild and within the aquarium, expansion of up-to-the-minute technology capacities, and promotion of intellectual synergies among clinicians, animal caretakers, field biologists, and scientists.
  • Greater Physical Accessibility: New circulation pathways will significantly reduce the number of transitions between areas of the aquarium, allowing guests to have multiple options regarding where they can start their journey, and making navigation easier and more efficient for guests with strollers, wheelchairs, and other mobility needs.
  • Activated Outdoor Spaces: The four acres of green space around the building — equivalent to 40 Chicago backyards — offer a myriad of possibility to serve as a living classroom while extending the aquarium’s conservation efforts. New and reinvigorated spaces will offer everything from a celebration of natural splendor to a comfortable place where guests can view the profound meeting of land and water. Increasing these direct connections to nature as well as biodiversity at all levels will bolster resilience on the lakefront while adding experiential value and environmental improvements.

“We know that when people experience animals up close, it motivates an emotional, empathetic response that has the power to shift attitudes and foster stewardship of local waters, global oceans, and wildlife,” Coughlin said. “In an age of increased urbanization, and as a national resource for aquatic conservation and education, we have a deep responsibility and obligation to help close the nature deficit gap. The onsite modernization of the aquarium experience is a significant tool that will help to enable this and several of our ambitions within the plan. We are excited to unveil this first, significant facet within the Centennial Commitment today, and look forward to sharing more exciting details about the other strategic investments throughout the year.”

Shedd’s onsite transformation is poised to deliver a massive economic impact statewide, creating more than 2,000 jobs in Illinois and leading to more than $340 million in economic activity through its construction phases. After ribbon cutting, the aquarium’s estimated total economic impact will exceed $410 million annually.

"Since the first day it opened its doors to the public, the Shedd Aquarium has attracted visitors from near and far—helping to spark interests and spread knowledge about aquatic life," said Chicago Mayor Lori E. Lightfoot. "Through this incredible Centennial Commitment, the Shedd Aquarium will be able to build on this reputation as well as give back to the surrounding community, modernize their facility and deepen their ongoing environmental research. We look forward to continuing to partner with our world-class aquarium to advance their ambitions, which will undoubtedly strengthen our city's economy and tourism scene."

Locally, the aquarium’s onsite project will create economic opportunities for diverse contractors in Chicago. Shedd has mandated self-imposed goals to award subcontracting packages to diverse targets of at least 26% and 6% MBE/WBE vendors, 50% of total onsite labor work hours to Chicago residents, and 25% of all onsite labor work hours to minority and female workers. Additionally, Shedd has also committed to ensuring hundreds of thousands of dollars go directly into the pockets of nearby Chicagoans, creating greater economic mobility and benefit for communities closest to Museum Campus.

“We are proud that Shedd has committed to making sure that diversity and equity are central to this project,” said city Alderperson Sophia King. “This includes preference given to residents in Chicago’s 4th Ward and the surrounding neighborhoods of Douglas, Grand Boulevard, Hyde Park, Kenwood, North Kenwood, Oakland, and the South Loop. Through this work, we will spread the economic benefit to areas that have been overlooked for too long.”

The project’s diverse spending goals are considered "the floor and not the ceiling," according to the aquarium, as the organization's ambition is to surpass all initial planned percentages.

In addition, contractors are strongly encouraged to commit to participating in one or more Chicago Public School (CPS) “Work-Based Learning” programs such as the Job Shadow Week, CPS’ Guest Speaker Series, Site Visit Week, Soft Skills Month and Career and/or the Technical Education Training (CTE) Summer Internship Program. These commitments will allow for real-world skill-building and career exploration opportunities for local teens.

The modernization of the historic galleries will serve as the largest capital project for the organization in recent history, preceded by the expansion of the Abbott Oceanarium in 1991 (and its reimagination in 2008), Amazon Rising exhibit in 2001, and Wild Reef exhibit in 2003.

Shedd opened its doors to the public in 1930 and has grown to become one of the world’s leading animal care, conservation, and education organizations, serving more than 200 million guests over the last nine decades. It draws the largest paid attendance of any Museums in the Park organization — 2 million people every year for nearly two decades, one-third of whom visit for free through Shedd’s commitment to admission access.

Transformational support for the Centennial Commitment has been provided by The Harvey L. Miller Family Foundation, the Mansueto Foundation and Builders Initiative in addition to lead corporate contributions from Bank of America, GATX Corporation and Illinois Tool Works Inc.

Visit Shedd Aquarium’s website at to learn more.

About Shedd Aquarium

The John G. Shedd Aquarium in Chicago sparks compassion, curiosity and conservation for the aquatic animal world. Home to 25,000 aquatic animals representing 1,500 species of fishes, reptiles, amphibians, invertebrates, birds and mammals from waters around the globe, Shedd is a recognized leader in animal care, conservation education and research. An accredited member of the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA), the organization is an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution and supported by the people of Chicago, the State of Illinois and the Chicago Park District. 

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