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Freshwater Aquarium - Expo Paris 1867

Freshwater Aquarium at the Exhibition Expo Paris 1867

For a long time now we have been walking through the sands, when grey, torn rocks present themselves to our eyes. At their foot lies a meagre pool of stagnant water; from their summit descend the stingy drops of a destitute waterfall. We head towards a crack in the rock which seems to promise us the entrance to a cave, perhaps that of a spacious cavern whose coolness our sunburnt foreheads long for, for the mountain is covered only by stunted and ill-tempered resinous tree bushes. There is no shelter, no shade outside, except for the tent of the Arab rising, in a thousand forms, on the burnt sand. But coolness does not dwell under canvas at midday...

"Near the entrance to the rocks, an enormous cactus cereus raises its large arms to the sky, which our companions compare to long gherkins abundantly furnished with spines. But once we entered, how much we were rewarded for our pains and fatigues! Before us lay an elliptical cave with a high vault, as if carved by human hands. A delicious coolness reigns in this subterranean place, and, what charms the eyes above all, it is that from the top of the vault, towards the wall of the cave opposite the entrance, escapes, between two natural pillars, a stream of water falling from outside in a kind of funnel formed by limestone deposits. This stream of water seeps through the stones and returns to flow through the middle of the room, in small stepped basins in which the water has deposited the encrusting material to shape it like an artificial stream. The daylight, penetrating behind the water, in the dark depths of the cave, produces a fantastic effect mixed with charm.... "

Such was the description of the Freshwater Aquarium that a very dear friend had kindly allowed me to cut out of the remarkable Voyage pittoresque à travers l'Exposition, which he is preparing, and, my goodness, I used it not only because it is faithful, but also because .... it saved me the trouble of making another one. It only remains for me to complete it, by saying that all the rocks around the cave are replaced by immense ices set in the stone and capriciously delimited by the configuration of their improvised frame. Through these mirrors, the view wanders into the perspective, - a true trompe-l'oeil, - made with the greatest skill, simply by means of cement and stone, representing the unpopulated and tormented beaches of the sea bed or the bed of the great rivers.

Nothing is more successful than this. Veiled by the murky water that is currently in the reservoirs, these reduced pictures of wild nature take on a singular poetry; it seems that, immersed in the watercourse itself, one is witnessing a revelation of the unknown aquatic world where everyone has sometimes dreamed of a nightmare walk. Unfortunately, the Serbs miss it too much: nature is more prodigious than that in green substances, and man would do well to imitate it everywhere and to surpass it when, as here, he has to fight against numerous causes of putrefaction.

In short, we have nothing but praise for the material arrangement of this feast for the eyes: it is not only successful as an inner theatrical arrangement, but as an outer construction. Each compartment filled with water is ventilated, in fact, directly into the atmosphere: without ceasing to be in the shade under the overhanging rocks, - which defends the water from heating, - it receives at the same time its contingent of flying and jumping insects which are supplied by the green grass which animates its edges. This material part of the installation is admirably treated; why should it be otherwise for all that can be called the living, ichthyological part of the enterprise.

Here arises a question that we cannot pass over in silence. Can an exhibition aquarium be a place of education, or should it be limited to presenting visitors with the simple attraction of satisfied curiosity? To ask such a question is to resolve it. If the World's Fair were not a place of higher learning, it would have no reason to exist. It is the great school in action, where each people generously comes to give a practical lesson to its neighbour. It is the mutual school of the world; but above all, and above all, it aims at teaching. So far, the freshwater aquarium alone is not aimed at anything at all! It is a pretty, very pretty stone-cardboard relief painting, but that is all...

And we want, in a few words, to prove what we are saying in spite of our desires, because if the content had met the container, the public would have witnessed an education of the highest interest. How! we are the compatriots of those who, a short time ago, resuscitated fish farming! how! we possess in France the first establishment in the world, in terms of layout and science! how! we have a swarm of engineers devoted to the work, so often still disappointing, of reseeding our fresh waters! and all you find to show us is a salamander and a few frogs bathing nonchalantly behind a mirror, and, next to it, a dozen crayfish, in a bush, under some brushwood!

As a specimen of the successful cultures of Huningue, we wanted to bring some salmon. The poor animals, poisoned by the liquid you served them, preferred to break their heads against the walls, rather than die, asphyxiated in this mephitic water. The unfortunate trout, which drool and feel suffocated in the neighbouring tank, show to the less trained eye that the yellowish sludge floating in this stagnant water invades and obstructs the delicate ramifications of their gills. The lampreys placed opposite, the lampreys, these daughters of the Fast Fonde, also die as they are immersed in this noxious environment!

Let us not believe that the public is indifferent to the things of the waters! When you see them raving about the tank in which a swarm of goldfish or Chinese cyprins have been gathered, - as if a well-chosen couple were not enough! When one sees the pleasure he feels in naming and recognising the ragged-finned bream which are being shown to him... one can judge the enthusiasm he would show in front of a really interesting spectacle.

However, a simple calculation would have been enough to abandon, from the outset, the idea of confining the fish to tanks of still or barely renewed water, which is the absolute case of the aquarium we are studying here. How many fish do we have that seek out stagnant water? How many of these do not live in fast flowing water? How many? None. The carp, the tench, the eel, the catfish, all the inhabitants of stagnant water are perfectly at ease in fast water, all live there more beautiful, more colourful, remain more alert, more alive. Why not put them in these conditions? When one is involved in making an aquarium, and especially when one is lucky enough to be so successful, one should not skimp on the water one fills it with. He who wants the end wants the means, and even if the organizers of this work had to collect a brilliant and limpid source from afar and bring it in at great expense, they should not back down.

Instead of showing the public the agony of a few fish or the decrepitude of old carp and pike covered with byssus - a spectacle which, let us admit, is not at all charming and does not appeal much - would it not be better to teach the crowd about the breeding of salmonids, this great work to which all the people can devote themselves without fearing that their efforts will exceed the goal? Was there not a real interest in repeating, there, before the eyes of all, the beautiful experiments by means of which men of the first order, such as the Coste, the Çoumes, etc., have obtained - and still obtain every day - such brilliant results in Huningue? It was a case, or never, of taking a decisive step in the education of the masses in this respect.

Far from placing in front of each vat, flat on the apiary, a small label which the spectators cannot read, even though they are jostling each other for this purpose, was it not the occasion to ask men who are educated and competent in this matter - there are a few of them - for an hour of their time to come, at a determined and posted moment, to explain to the crowd the purpose, not of what is being shown to them today, but of what could have been put before their eyes?... You would have had an immense success there; and France would have gained another rapid popularisation of science.

I am well aware that at this time of the year, the operations of salmonid fish farming could not begin with the hatching, since this has been completed for three months; but, do you think that the public would have seen the young fry taking their food without interest, that it would have found it inappropriate to make comparative experiments with the various diets recommended by the scientists and experimenters of each country? Would it not have been easy to have the visitor witness the hatching of our white fish and cyprine species? Asking these questions is enough. But you had no water,,,. When one does a work as serious as the one you have undertaken, one must have all that is necessary, and above all one must not seem to lack the simplest physiological knowledge relating to the animals that one studies every day. You remind me of the monkey in the fable who had only forgotten one thing, for his experiment to be complete, and that was to light his lantern!

There is no lack of light here, it is water. It is more than that, it is life. It is more than that, it is actuality! Instead of the renewed vain and curious banality of the shops on the boulevard and the quays, we could have reaped a harvest of beautiful and useful scientific popularisation.... The only thing missing is to know how to turn on the lantern!

©L'Exposition Universelle de 1867 Illustrée