Oldest Aquariums in the United States

Public aquariums have been around for centuries.
Public aquariums have been around for centuries.

An aquarium is an artificial enclosure filled with water used to serve as a habitat for fish or other marine organisms. An aquarium range in size from small household aquariums meant for a few and small fish to huge ones that can hold millions of gallons of water and host animals as big as the whale. It is believed that aquariums were initially built by prehistoric man for the purpose of storing his fish after catching. However, the 18th century brought with it entrepreneurs who established some of the most famous aquariums in the world for both scientific research and entertainment purposes.

Oldest Aquariums in the United States

Barnum National Museum Aquarium

The Barnum National Museum was one of the most famous locations in New York City at its prime, attracting thousands of visitors. The museum was established in 1841 by entrepreneur and stage show performer, P.T. Barnum who bought the premises which housed the Scudder’s American Museum. Dubbed “The Greatest Show on Earth,” the Barnum National Museum featured a zoo, items of American history, and the famous aquarium. The Barnum National Museum aquarium was one of the largest aquariums of the 19th century and was one of the first aquariums to host living whale specimen which was predominantly the beluga white whale. The whales were captured in Canada and were brought to New York for the curious onlookers. However, being the pioneer of having captive whales, Barnum had little knowledge of their feeding habits and other elements necessary for their survival such as the depth, salinity of the water, and other factors. As a result, the whales died soon after their arrival with few living past a week in their enclosures. Barnum, being a shrewd businessman, published obituaries in the local newspapers “mourning” the deaths while announcing the arrival of new replacements. The Barnum National Museum was closed in 1865 after a fire razed it to the ground.

Waikiki Aquarium

The Waikiki Aquarium, originally known as the Honolulu Aquarium, is a public aquarium located in Honolulu, Hawaii. Established in 1904, it is one of the first public aquariums in the United States. The aquarium’s diverse marine ecosystem attracts thousands of visitors monthly and hosts various species of fish, turtles, and marine mammals such as seals. The Waikiki Aquarium was built by the Honolulu Rapid Transit and Land Company. Mr. Frederick A. Potter, who was a clerk at the transit company, was made the manager of the site and subsequently became the aquarium’s first director and oversaw its success and its global popularity. Waikiki Aquarium was one of the first aquariums in the United States to have a resident biologist for the welfare of the marine ecosystem.


Many activists all over the world have been voicing their dissatisfaction with the way aquariums handle the animals in their tanks. The activists claim that putting marine animals in tanks, which they say are social beings and travel hundreds of miles in the ocean, is cruel and has huge implications for their natural behaviors. The activists claim that even when released back in the wild, these marine animals have a slim chance of survival.

Oldest Aquariums in the United States

RankAcquarium NameYear ConstructedLocationStatus (2017)
1Barnum's American Museum1841New York, NYClosed
2Boston Acquarial Gardens1859Boston, MAClosed
3Woodward's Gardens1866San Francisco, CAClosed
4National Acquarium1873Washington, DCClosed
5Woods Hole Science Acquarium1885Woods Hole, MAOpen
6New York Acquarium1896Brooklyn, NYOpen
7Birch Acquarium at Scripps1903San Diego, CAOpen
8Waikiki Aquarium1904Honululu, HIOpen
9Belle Isle Aquarium1904Detroit, MIOpen
10Philadelphia Aquarium1911Philadelphia, PAClosed
11Shedd Aquarium1930Chicago, ILOpen

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