Unseen Oceans

AMNH’s new exhibition uses multimedia and immersive design to take visitors on an undersea journey.

entrance projection
The last time I visited the American Museum of Natural History I saw Our Senses, a temporary exhibition on sensory perception that combined immersive, selfie-friendly environments with hands-on interactives (with mixed results).

More recently, the museum opened Unseen Oceans, which promised a new immersive journey, this time to the deep, dark underlayers of ocean life. I’ve always been a fan of AMNH’s exhibition designs, so I was eager to see how, and how successfully, Ocean‘s immersive approach would transport visitors beyond the museum’s walls.

The exhibition kicks off with a big media moment, as visitors turn a corner to find themselves faced with a large projection that spills from a wall onto the floor below. Rippling waves on the wall emerge onto the floor and lap at the sands of a virtual beach. It’s simple and surprisingly effective – especially considering the adjacent exit door which threatens to spoil the illusion.

Next we enter the first of six circular galleries, this one dedicated to plankton. Above our heads, an array of 3D printed species are dramatically side-lit in greens and blues, and mirrored surfaces present the illusion that this canopy continues infintely. It’s a remarkably effective technique, and drew my attention away from the room’s ceiling panels a few feet further overhead. Below, backlit, reflective graphic panels feature non-digital interactives that ask us to match images of baby and adult plankton, and digital microscopes make it easy for visitors to observe life in droplets of seawater. Overall, the effect is pretty dazzling, turning these tiny creatures into glittering stars.

More drama awaits in the next gallery, where a carousel of bioflourescent sea life models spiral around the center of the room (photo below). Interactives here demonstrate how scientists use special lights and cameras to locate these creatures deep under the ocean’s surface, while small tanks feature live seahorses, eels, and other species.

The third space features a 180-degree projection, providing a large-format view of the deep ocean. Whales, rays, squid, and other giant creatures swim by (photo above), with no interpretive labels or narration. The effect is Disney-esque, and really magical – the animation is top-notch, the timing of the 2-3 minute loop is perfect, and the music is cinematic and stirring. It’s one of those rare moments where museum media goes beyond education and engagement to become truly awe-inspiring.

ocean landscapeThe next gallery is devoted to the landscape of the ocean floor; the room presents the mountainous geometry as a cutaway 3D grid, with fluorescent lines lighting up the contours. This “Tron” effect felt fun and retro-high-tech. Sidebar alcoves here present the work of scientists developing ‘smart’ grippers for robotically examining unfamiliar objects, and an interactive sandbox, where colorful topographic layers are projected onto sand interactively a depth-sensing camera. The latter activity was quite popular with families, and its connection to the rest of the gallery’s content felt intuitive (if unspoken).

sandboxThe next room is devoted to human exploration of the ocean, and is split into two halves. The first is the exhibit’s only true photo op, inviting visitors to sit in the front seat of a Triton exploration vehicle, while animated lighting provides an undersea effect. In the second, a short video takes visitors on a virtual voyage in a submersible vessel, from the water’s surface to the ocean’s depths. The primary media plays on a central screen, with a series of smaller ‘porthole’ images surrounding it. The video used real documentary footage, and while well-made and well-presented, it wasn’t quite as compelling as the earlier immersive theater.

The final gallery focuses on human impact, and provides two more interactive media experiences. The first is a simple one: the floor is filled with projections of fish, which flock into school patterns, avoiding the footsteps of visitors. It’s been done a hundred times, but this version seemed particularly well crafted, perhaps because the fish are presented as simple abstracted outlines, focusing us on their behavior rather than their appearance.


Also in this gallery, two stations feature a complex interactive game in which visitors command a deep-sea exploration robot, collecting and identifying specimens of life they find on the ocean floor. The real-time 3D graphics are impeccable; the user experience, though, is awfully complicated; visitors interact using a joystick and a half-dozen push buttons, and while exploring they’re asked to manage temperature, fuel, and oxygen levels. Families seemed to figure it out, more or less, but the balance between the accuracy of the simulation and the engagement of the experience seemed off.


This is a really gorgeous exhibition; everything shines and sparkles, and the drama and mystery of the deep ocean is reflected in the intriguing spaces that the exhibition designers have created here. It’s awfully dark – not nearly as Instagram-friendly as Our Senses on the floor below – but its carefully curated bits of spectacle, combined with solid content and media, make for an experience that exceeds its neighbor in both immersion and interactivity.

Unseen Oceans

Through August 18, 2019
American Museum of Natural History

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