The Ocean At Home
The Ocean At Home An Illustrated History of the Aquarium
Reaktion Books 160pp £17.95
For many children, a goldfish or guppy will be their first experience of owning a pet. Yet a dip into this revised and updated edition of The Ocean at Home: An Illustrated History of the Aquarium shows that keeping fish has not always been child’s play.
Bernd Brunner approaches the aquarium in straightforward chronological fashion. He quickly covers several millennia of occasional fish-keeping before reaching the 19th century, when the first serious exploration of the deep sea began to reveal its true and extraordinary diversity. Suddenly the aquarium became the must-have accessory in Europe and beyond.
The English naturalist Philip Henry Gosse is a key figure in the popularisation of the aquarium. Of his many popular books The Aquarium: An Unveiling of the Wonders of the Sea, published in 1854, is credited with igniting a craze for this innovation. Gosse’s world reveals just how much we take for granted about keeping fish. Before railways the shore and the sea were but distant places for many. In pre-1845 Britain a tax on glass meant that a tank was a luxury beyond the means of most. Even with affordable glass there was the technical challenge of fashioning it into watertight containers. Those keen to recreate a marine world in their homes had to have a constant supply of fresh seawater to prevent their tank, and everything in it, from stagnating. ‘Gosse tried to achieve the impossible – to put life into the “collecting cases” that had been designed centuries earlier for lifeless objects,’ writes Brunner.
By 1860, however, the ‘aquarium mania’ (as one commentator described it) was over, with nine out of ten enthusiasts giving up on their hobby. Some were content with the less exciting but far more practical freshwater aquarium. Yet the seawater aquarium had opened eyes and remained an impressive talking point in spite of the challenges of maintaining it.
In subsequent decades evergreater disposable incomes, a better understanding of the organisms themselves and some very cunning inventions made it easier to overcome the challenges the seawater aquarium posed. The new and widespread interest in the submarine was also met by a proliferation of aquarist societies, specialist publications and stunning public aquaria, beautifully captured in some of the book’s abundant historical illustrations.
Brunner never strays far from the aquarium and this tight focus should appeal most to any of the estimated two million people worldwide who own a marine aquarium and the many more who keep freshwater fish – though his conclusion might make for difficult reading.
The essentially ostentatious nature of the aquarium means that people will go to extraordinary lengths to get hold of the most exotic, colourful fish. By the early 20th century, however, the impact of this kind of exploitation was already apparent. In a biography of Philip Henry Gosse, published in 1907, his son Edmund lamented the destruction the aquarium had wrought on ‘the ring of living beauty drawn about our shores’. Of the rock basins that once ‘thronged with beautiful sensitive forms of life,’ he wrote that ‘they exist no longer, they are all profaned, and emptied, and vulgarised.’
Brunner takes this as his starting point for a brooding reflection on what he calls ‘the dark underside of the aquarium’. As of 2003, according to the most recent United Nations report, more than 20 million tropical fish are caught each year to satisfy the European and US demand for marine ornamental species. For Brunner the ecological cost of this trade ‘is just too large to justify the display for a small group of people over a limited period of time’. The marine aquarium, he concludes, ‘is no longer an option for any responsible person.’
Henry Nicholls is the author of The Way of the Panda: The Curious History of China’s Political Animal (Profile Books, 2010).
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