Tuesday, April 15, 2008

KC Exclusive Interview With NY Aquarium Director Jon Dohlin Part 1

Last month, The Wildlife Conservation Society named Jon Forrest Dohlin - a ten-year WCS veteran with a background in biology and architecture- as the new director of the New York Aquarium. Last week, Kinetic Carnival had the pleasure of meeting with Dohlin (and his three turtles, all named Bob).

We are happy to share with you the highlights of this stimulating discussion. Today, we have some views from Dohlin on subjects such as conservation and the aquarium's role in the neighborhood and community. Tomorrow, we will wrap up our aquarium feature with thoughts from Dohlin on things such as Marty Markowitz, and the redevelopment of Coney Island.

On conservation:

"What's not going to change [at the aquarium] is our commitment to an underlying conservation message - we are a conservation organization.- and our commitment [is] to educating people to what they can do to save wildlife and wild places."

"We're different from the other institutions at Coney Island. While we are about entertainment, we are about fun, we are about a carny atmosphere, and we are about people having a great time, if at the end of the day I'm not also saving the world… and I know that sounds absurd, but nonetheless, that's my goal in life, and my goal working here at WCS, and WCS's goal is to save the world, essentially, to save wild animals and wild places. If I don't accomplish that, then I'm not doing anything.

"Having said that, I don't think being a conservation organization means that we have to be stuffy, that we have to be holier than thou, stand apart from the Coney Island community, or pretend like we are not also in the entertainment business, or also in the guest experience business."

On being located in Coney Island:

"It involves the fun part of being part of Coney Island, which is, 'let's just have a blast here!' But we also do have a real opportunity to reach out to the community. But we're always going to have an educational aspect to what we're doing. When you see our float in the Mermaid Parade, man, you're going to be like, 'Yes! Look at it! They did it! It's funny, and it's conservation!'

"For example- and this just a small thing, we got a gazillion of these small things, and they're going to happen- with the Parks department, we're going to start putting nature interpretation all along the Coney Island experience. There's all this nature that happens out at the beach, but nobody thinks about it this way. It's almost like the beach is just an artificial construct. But when you think about it, if you go down to the jetties, and just watch for two minutes, all of a sudden there's all this life. So we're working with the Parks Department to put up all this interpretive signage about these things. Then, eventually, we're going to change over one of our exhibits to be a Coney Island beach jetty, So we can interpret it one way inside, than when you go outside and actually experience it, there will be this signage partnered with the parks department and the aquarium about what's actually going on."

On reaching out to the community:

"As happy as we might be to add to our base, we're never going to ignore that foundation we're based on, as a local institution.

"So it's not just being a nice neighbor, it's smart to reach out to the Russian community, it's smart to reach out the Orthodox Jewish community, to the Latino community, to the African American community. These are our neighbors, but they're also our customers. Some of the things are so simple. Besides reaching out to the Russian community by having a Russian singles night or something, we're also getting funding to have bilingual dosens. Russian speaking and Spanish speaking. To make the kinds of experiences we already have available, available to everybody, across the board. It's pragmatic. That's sometimes a dirty word, but it's not in this case. It's simply to my benefit to make this place as approachable to anyone as possible. And since I know that most people come from the neighborhood, and I know what my neighborhood looks like, I want to be as friendly to my neighbors as possible."

"Yeshivas come in and get this lecture on the laws of kosher, and then our educational director comes in and gives the scientific basis for what they're seeing. With [treif] food, shellfish and stuff like that, they're talking about aspects of kosher law. But then Dr. Kafka can come in and talk about it within the ecology of the coral reef, and that's a very interesting sort of dialogue that can happen there. Because, you can start to make these sort of larger connections, not only between the neighborhoods, but between different paradigms. Both of those things could be working towards the same goal. If we're saying that conch fisheries are wiping out portions of the population that are crucial to coral reef health, suddenly bringing in the idea that conchs are verboten in the kosher world is really cool. You're actually helping to save the world by eating kosher!"

In second half of the interview Dohlin discusses the redevelopment of Coney Island, Marty Markowitz,
revamping the aquarium, and more.
- post by Ben Nadler

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