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Last week I had the unusual experience of petting a shark. This is how it came about.

I was visiting the Oceanographic Museum of Monaco. Those familiar with the history of oceanography will already be acquainted with the personage of Prince Albert 1st (1848 – 1922), arguably the single most important individual patron of oceanographic science during the late nineteenth century. While a hasty but uninformed view might dismiss Prince Albert 1st as solely a wealthy patron who entertained himself with oceanography (think a James Cameron of the nineteenth century), the museum survives not only as a testament to his dedication to supporting and publicizing marine science, but also demonstrates the breadth of the scientific research he accomplished and the innovative nature of his approach to a pioneer field science.

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Conceived by him as a “temple dedicated to science and art”, the museum clings to a cliff face over the Mediterranean. At its inauguration ceremony on March 29th, 1910, Prince Albert 1st declared: “Here, Gentlemen, as you see, out of Monaco’s earth has sprung a proud and inviolable temple, dedicated to the new divinity which reigns over the best minds.” The building’s ornate façade monumentalizes pioneering oceanographic voyages of the nineteenth century. Immediately below the roofline, the names of oceanographic vessels are inscribed: Challenger, Blake, Fram, Valdivia, Albatross, Hirondelle, Princesse-Alice, Princesse-Alice II, and Hirondelle II, the last four being the research vessels of Prince Albert 1st. [See: Carpine, C. 1968. Les navires océanographiques dont les noms ont été choisis par S.A.S. le Prince Albert 1er  pour figurer sur la façade du Musée océanographique de Monaco. Bull. Inst. océanogr. Monaco, no spécial 2 (Congr. Int. Hist. Océanogr. 1), pp. 627-638.]

Though originally built to display the collections gathered during the voyages of Prince Albert 1st, the Museum of Oceanography has since modernized its exhibits to appeal to tourists who flock to Monaco, drawn more by the glamour of the site than by the principality’s significance as a historical landmark for oceanographic research. The lower floors are given over entirely to aquariums. When I visited, a special exhibit entitled “Sharks: The Expo Sensation” included a large open touch-tank (bassin-caress) and an invitation to visitors to “caress” young sharks.

On the second floor, an art installation entitled “Oceanomania”, by the American artist Mark Dion, was billed as the largest marine curiosity cabinet in the world. Two large galleries open to either side of this display. The gallery on the right, “la salle de la Baleine”, or “whale room”, was given over to shark displays. Here a projection screen with images of shark species displayed animations activated by motion sensor when visitors approached. The gallery on the left, the “Prince Albert 1er room”, of great interest to the historian, presents a treasure trove of objects, images, and instruments relating to the oceanographic work of Prince Albert 1st.

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To be seen here is the laboratory room from the Hirondelle II, Prince Albert’s final research yacht. The photographs and paintings on display depict the crew, scientists, and staff who accompanied Albert 1st on his 28 oceanographic campaigns. Also on display are many of the instruments invented or modified for use aboard the Prince’s vessels, along with excerpts from some of Albert’s writings describing his marine research. The instruments include floats for measuring the direction and strength of currents, traps, nets, and harpoons for capturing marine creatures, as well as microscopes and optical instruments for the observation of plankton and living fish.

I left the museum having touched a shark for the first time. But more important for my understanding of the history of oceanography, I was struck by the genius and vision of Prince Albert 1st as a pioneering marine scientist.

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