Maria Mitchell Association Reveals Plans For New Aquarium

David Creed •

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The Maria Mitchell Association unveiled preliminary plans to move and expand its aquarium during an event Saturday evening, with the new facility to be located at 33 Washington Street. The project, across the street from the existing aquarium location, is expected to take approximately four years to complete.

"This has been in the works for better than 14 years when we traded that property across the street (28 Washington Street) for this property (33Washington Street) with the idea and the vision that we would eventually develop a science discovery aquarium center,” Maria Mitchell Association (MMA) executive director Joanna Roche said during the event Saturday night. “We've spent the better part of the last two years figuring out exactly how we're going to do that. What we've learned is kind of shown in our renderings here. But through this process, our board and a team of really incredible people came together to develop some plans that we really think are meaningful to the community, and really show what coastal resiliency plan can be for Nantucket.”

MMA new discovery center
MMA Board Chair Sarah Ward (left) and MMA Executive Director Joanna Roche with one of the preliminary renderings of the new aquarium and discovery center. Photo by David Creed

The MMA did not announce the estimated price tag for the new facility, noting the plans are still in preliminary form. Anticipated project costs and the details of a new capital campaign are expected to be shared by the organization in 2024.

The new facility will incorporate four of the existing buildings on the site, three of which are under historic restrictions. The old Nantucket ticket booth across the street from 33 Washington, which was utilized by the Nantucket Railroad over 100 years ago, will also be incorporated into the new expansion. The ramp leading to the first floor of the building will be over 10 feet off the ground.

Roche said that this new facility will be a reimagined space featuring hands-on and experiential learning opportunities, an expanded, state-of-the-art aquarium and marine biology lab, rotating exhibits highlighting the history of Maria Mitchell and her role in history, community gathering spaces, and improved residential housing for MMA staff.

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The MMA previously made a land swap with the Nantucket Islands Land Bank – 28 Washington Street, for 33 Washington Street – with the long-term intention of developing a larger aquarium and discovery center.

The 28 Washington Street aquarium site will be permanently closed by the MMA. The organization's lease for the property is set to end in November 2023 and it will be opening a temporary aquarium during the construction phase of the new MMA Aquarium and Discovery Center. The location of the temporary aquarium has not been finalized at this time, Roche said, but she said they are hoping to determine that soon.

“Due to its location on Washington Street, one of the most frequently flooded areas on the island, the MMA is uniquely positioned to adopt a leadership role in coastal resiliency,” the MMA said in a statement released after the event. “The Association has been working with resiliency experts, engineers, designers, and other experts to calculate a plan that would manage flooding and drainage in the area based on the 100-year storm."

“We are committed to our role in scientific education, lifelong learning, and the preservation of Maria Mitchell’s legacy,” Roche added. “The MMA Discovery Center and Aquarium will be the most visible, public-facing center for discovery and science focused on STEM education on Nantucket.”

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For over 40 years, the MMA aquarium has been one of the non-profit's most popular destinations and programs as it developed its mission to connect people to nature through the sky, land, and sea of Nantucket.

Roche said that above all else, what she and the MMA are hoping to do is show leadership in the area of coastal resiliency and play a key role in educating the Nantucket community around what that looks like.

“(Nantucket) is a dynamic environment. Things are changing constantly. It is not a science, it is a practice. I think it is our opportunity and our privilege to be able to participate in this and to elevate this building and the buildings on this property so that we are showing over the next 100 years what it's like to be in a community that has to deal with sea level rise because that water's coming across the street whether we want it to or not,” Roche said. “The town has spent a lot of money and a lot of time with a lot of talented people working to develop the coastal resiliency plan and we are really thrilled to be able to help alongside the town and alongside all of the properties on Washington Street, to show what that looks like.”

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