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MUSEUM REVIEW

New England Aquarium

Nyanja! Africa’s Inland Sea

By Heather Joy Anderson

Staff Writer

I like zoos. I like them because they give you a chance to connect with nature, on your own terms. I especially like aquariums because I don’t have a scuba license, but I still like to feel connected to the greatest part of the Earth: the ocean. So it was with eager anticipation that I looked forward to visiting the New England Aquarium to experience Nyanja!, known to most of us as Lake Victoria, which is the second largest body of fresh water in the world, right after our aptly named Lake Superior.

I did enjoy my visit, despite the miniscule number of specimens and the politically correct theme (more on that later). Nyanja! occupies a tiny corner in the front of the aquarium, which isn’t very large to begin with. One of the two spectacular animals there can be seen right as you enter: an adult crocodile (yes, it’s real). Although its cage seems entirely too small and thus provokes more pity than fear, the crocodile really makes the whole trip worth it.

Unfortunately, most of the exhibits are virtually littered with irrelevant cultural facts that seem to replace the biologic. In fact, there is even a “marketplace” exhibit, replete with authentic crafts, that made me wonder what animal gave up its right to be seen and studied so we could marvel at African shoes and shampoo. If you do take your time to look at all the animals closely, you can at least get the feeling that you are in a whole new building, if not on another continent.

A couple exhibits are unique, if not alarming, such as the enormous orb spider that is Not Behind Glass. The very helpful and mildly scientific plaque tells you that the spider wouldn’t want to come over to you anyway, but its classic in-the-window-at-Halloween look makes it scary enough for this arachnophobe without the barrier removal.

The other impressively frightening animals are the two 23-inch long African rock pythons (yes, plural). These lethargic creatures have diameters that have got to be the size of Popeye’s forearms. In addition to these, there are assorted varieties of fish, ordinary birds, and, for some reason, a lot of impressionist paintings. Much of the hall space is filled with plaques telling you that the Nile perch is the Lake’s Antichrist, destroying native fish and thus local economies. (Hey, that’s Darwinism at work, right? For the fish anyway.)

Many of the computerized exhibits were not working when I was there (isn’t that always the case?), and a few animals had not yet arrived. But even if everything was in place, the whole shebang won’t take more than 45 minutes, even for the careful observer, so you can get on to the good part -- the actual aquarium. And lucky for you, because the admission price gets you into Nyanja! and the year-round portion.

If you haven’t been to the New England Aquarium, go. That’s it. There, for a modest fee, you can travel to distant worlds to view grotesque and wonderful aliens far stranger than those created in the never-never land of Hollywood. True, it’s not very big, but it packs in more weirdness per square foot than Harvard Square on a Saturday night. From the eight-foot long jewfish to the Surinam toad that looks, I swear, like swimming roadkill, the aquarium is a definite must-see. Of course, you should try to catch a glimpse of the myriad teeth on the sand tiger shark in the main tank. According to the sign, when the shark hatches in utero, it promptly devours its siblings before bothering to be born (which makes it more competitive than piano majors at Juilliard). And if you go, don’t skip my favorite; the exhibit on Boston wastewater is, to put it mildly, no less than awe-inspiring.

Of course, for the MIT-centric, there are some neat, although misplaced, photos taken by Harold Edgerton, but they are nothing compared to what’s in the MIT museum. And, last but not least, are the too-cute-to-be-real penguins that grace the center of the building and who always begin and end every visit to the wonderful place.

For more information on the New England Aquarium go to <http://www.neaq.org>.