Jellyfish & Glassblowing: Art/Nature Intersections at the Tennessee Aquarium and Hunter Museum

I had a chance to spend a few hours in the Tennessee Aquarium last week. I love aquariums, and this one did not disappoint. I enjoyed exotic sea horses and sea dragons, had to be dragged away from the octopus cleaning her eggs, and spent a good 10 minutes mesmerized by a sea turtle scratching its belly on the coral reef. I also spotted a wonderful inter-museum connection initiative in a few different exhibits.

In a delightful example of inter-organizational collaboration, the Tennessee Aquarium has partnered up with the Hunter Museum of American Art (just down the riverfront walk) the aquarium exhibition Jellies: Living ArtAs you wander around a darkened room, watching backlit jellies floating around in their display tanks, you can also enjoy art displays mixed in among the tanks. Each display highlights a different artist’s jellyfish-inspired art, including glass art. The Hunter has its own impressive collection of glass art, so whether you start at the aquarium or at the art museum, you’ll have a chance to think about how art and nature are connected and how artists are influenced by the natural world.

Glass art by Stephen Rolf Powell at the Tennessee Aquarium. (The left image in the cover photo of this post is a close-up of one of his pieces.)

From the exhibition page on the Hunter’s website:

…while jellyfish and studio glass may seem like a strange combination, they share many characteristics. These delicate and mysterious creatures of the deep have intrigued people and fueled artistic expression for centuries. Each species has a unique motion, rhythm, color and pattern. Guests will marvel at the way artists like world-renowned Dale Chihuly infuse glass with striking colors and patterns while creating works of art that appear to flow with a graceful motion and rhythm.

I’ve seen a number of jellyfish exhibits at aquariums, and while all are delightful, they tend to be much the same each time. However, the Tennessee Aquarium really set theirs apart with the inclusion of glass-art. We went straight from the aquarium to the Hunter, so the connections were even more engaging. At the Hunter, they had a touchable display in their glass galleries explain how Stephen Powell, one of the artists displayed at the aquarium, creates his glass masterpieces. They even had a small leftover piece from one of his original artworks that you could touch. This reminded me of the two “touch tanks” at the aquarium, where you can reach into shallow pools and gently touch rays. Fish in the aquarium, like most works of art, are too delicate and valuable to let visitors physically interact with them. But these little touch-friendly stations at both institutions let you get a little closer and appreciate the stunning detail in nature and art.

Panel at the Tennessee Aquarium. The Hunter Museum also had a panel in their glass section directing you to the Jellies exhibit in the aquarium.

I came across two other nice art/nature intersections at the aquarium. The first was in the turtle exhibit. Before you even started admiring the incredible diversity of turtles found all over the world, you get a little lesson in the “Architecture of the Turtle Shell.” Examples of shells are compared to church architecture, geodesic domes, and other relevant styles. I have a master’s in medieval studies, and I love turtles. But I have never made the mental connection between flying buttresses and turtle shells! It was a great way to get you thinking creatively about the artistic parallels for the unique shell types that followed that case.

(Tangent: I grew up next to a railroad track that ran through the woods. My brothers and I would walk down the tracks rescuing the box turtles that had gotten stuck between the rails and taking home the empty shells of the less fortunate turtles.)

And, at the end of the turtle exhibit, there was a little case with examples of artistic turtle representations from around the world, prompting you to think about how people in different times and places have thought about and appreciated the strange little animal that is the turtle.

Last, but not least, the last display in the Aquarium’s huge permanent exhibit, River Journey (of which the turtle exhibit is another section), is a long wall of ceiling-height cases featuring art and art forms birthed along our rivers, from ancient to modern. These artworks show what a strong influence the river and its animal inhabitants have always had on humans and their creative spirit.

These art/nature intersections were small and easy to walk right by, but at the very least, they invited every visitor at the aquarium to think a bit about the ways we as people are inspired to try and capture the wonders of nature that we experience at the aquarium (and outside it) through art. At best, they inspire more dialogue between the natural sciences and the arts, cross-promote institutions in downtown Chattanooga, and get kids and adults alike to engage more deeply and meaningfully with the natural and created world around them.

BONUS: Signage between the aquarium and the art museum promoting the collaboration. Nearby were sculptures of women representing water/ waves.

DOUBLE BONUS: Here’s my attempt to artistically capture the three-armed sea turtle at the Baltimore Aquarium in Maryland last year.


  1. This is an amazing piece. I also nerd out intensely when I see museums working together, so these instances you described really impressed and excited me. It sounds like everyone benefited as well, making the case for more frequent collaboration between institutions all over the world. Thanks so much for writing about it! I’m inspired!

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