A Short History of Aquariums: Scientific Curiosity, Aesthethic Delight and Conviviality

Global Convivial Forum 

Ana Carolina Torquato (Junior Fellow Mecila)

Lady with a Japanese Screen and Goldfish, James Cadenhead (1858–1927).

In my research year as a Junior Postdoctoral fellow at Mecila, I have been dealing with the subject of animal captivity as means of entertainment. I am primarily interested in the representation of such establishments as zoos and aquariums in literature to understand better what kinds of thoughts, impressions, feelings, or questionings these “face-to-face moments” arise in the stories I delved into.

In the contemporary world, it is very common to find zoological gardens and aquariums in basically every big city around the globe. Their purpose as institutions which promote human/animal contact as their basic means for entertainment has not changed much since their early formats. However, although zoos and aquariums have similar characteristics, their history is different in situation and time. Whereas zoological gardens date back to earlier forms of private (and royal) animal collections, to menageries, to finally having the layout they have now – a place which displays animals, mostly terrestrial ones, to a wide public – aquariums have a more recent and somewhat multipurposed appearance in history.

A Brief History of the Aquariums

Human beings have a long tradition of keeping fish and other aquatic animals in the surroundings of the home. Naturally, the purpose behind such practice has changed significantly over time. There are signs of humans keeping fish at home as a food supply and an ornament to beautify their living spaces and gardens (Vernon 2001). In my research, I am particularly interested in the latter form of fish keeping, for they show us light into the history of aquariums as objects of aesthetic observation.


Although these species seem to have lost part of their ancient charm in contemporary times, one of the most beloved species in the history of fish keeping for ornamental purposes was the goldfish (Brunner 2005). These golden beings may be one of the kick-starters of a tradition that would become a fever in places like China, Japan, and some European countries.

While raising fish in water gardens has been a tradition in many places around the world, the modern idea of domestic conviviality between humans and aquatic animals was first popularized in the mid-nineteenth century with the creation of the at-home aquariums. Since then, the popularity of home aquariums grew fast and gave room to a genuine Age of aquariums: a time when educational interests, aesthetic curiosities, and the domesticity of unconventional pets revolved around one object.

The history of aquariums as we know them today starts with the creation of home aquariums. Such history was shaped by the collective work of many intellectuals and natural historians worldwide. Among these, two of the most frequently mentioned names belonged to two women: Anna Thynne (England, 1806–1866) and Jeanne Villepreux-Power (France, 1794 –1871).

Jeanne Villepreux-Power street in Paris is located in the vicinity of the Parc Zoologique Bois de Vincennes, a true Victorian aquarium kept at the Horniman Museum’s aquarium in London. (Personal archive.)

A true Victorian aquarium kept at the Horniman Museum’s aquarium in London. (Personal Archive.)

Anna Thynne had an important role in the history of aquariums. She became quite well-known for her investigation of madrepores and stone corals and for discovering the recipe of one of the essential rules of the at-home aquariums: how to keep aquatic animals alive (in saltwater) at home (Scott 2003). Anna’s discoveries were considered fundamental for the development of the aquarium in its private and public forms. Her work was praised by Philip Henry Gosse, known as the creator of the public aquarium in its early form in Britain. In 1853, Gosse stocked the Fish House which was annexed to the London Zoo. Allegedly, the name ‘aquarium’ – as opposed to ‘aqua-vivarium’ –  was first used by Philip Henry Gosse in The Aquariums: An Unveiling of the Wonders of the Deep Water (1854).

Jeannette Villepreux-Power was notorious for creating aquariums used mainly for observation purposes. She used aquariums as containers of marine animal life for conducting experimentation with aquatic organisms or studying their anatomy and form. Contrary to Anna Thynne, Villepreux-Power did not believe the home aquarium to be a good way to observe aquatic animals’ behaviour, so to embrace this thinking, she settled in a place where she could have easy access to the ocean. For this reason, most of her independent work was then carried on in Sicily, Italy. Villepreux-Power published a few books about her investigations, such as Observations et expériences physiques sur plusieurs animaux marins et terrestres (1839). Both Thynne and Villepreux-Power lived in a time when women could not attend university, and all that they knew or researched was mainly the result of independent work. Also, for this reason, although their interest in contributing to the history of sciences was genuine, not much of it was publicly credited for their real scientific importance.

The Age of Aquariums

In the nineteenth century, keeping aquariums at home became a fever among Europeans. Among the aquarium-maniacs, you could find naturalists interested in studying aquatic animals from up-close, people who would keep fish at home to use them for their diet, and people who wanted to display the aquarium as an object of prestige and high social status (Granata 2021).

Soon, as they became luxury items, the at-home aquariums became must-have items among the upper classes. Aquariums were particularly popular in Britain, and soon they started to occupy a central place in Victorian living rooms. Their earlier formats were quite simple and often did not promote 360º visibility, one of the qualities of modern fish tanks. However, since they became valuable decorative articles, aquariums started being produced with glass on all sides to guarantee unobstructed observation from any corner of the living room. Aquariums were said to occupy a similar value as television sets in modern houses. This object needed to be displayed in the centre while all the furniture was arranged around it.

The Public Aquariums

Most of the success of the at-home aquariums was due to their multi-purpose use: they were both exciting modes to observe marine life and also objects that promoted aesthetic observation delights and social entertainment. So, as aquariums became a more common trend by the day, they soon called the attention of naturalists/business people that saw their potential to become a similar leisure experience as that of zoological gardens.

Many public aquariums were inaugurated from the mid-nineteenth century onwards: The Fish House at the ZSL London Zoo opened in 1853, the Aquarium of the Jardin Acclimatation and the Vienna Aquarium Salon in 1860, the Hamburg Marine Aquarium Temple in 1864, the Naples Aquarium in 1866, the Berlin Aquarium Unter den Linden in 1869, the Brighton Aquarium in 1872, the Amsterdam Artis Aquarium in 1882, among others.

Some of these public institutions fostered similar qualities as those of the home aquariums since they combined educational values and artistic and aesthetic interests. Some of them were constructed in scenic art nouveau-inspired buildings. These buildings are an example of a tradition that established fine architectural structures in public zoos and aquariums that would continue to exist later. A few examples are Moritz Lehmann’s main portal of the Tierpark Hagenbeck in Hamburg (1907), Lubetkin’s Penguin Pool (1934) at the London Zoo, René-Félix Berger’s Grande Fauverie (1937) at the Jardin des Plantes, the Museu Paraense Emílio Goeldi’s belle époche portal (1883) or even the Quinta da Boa Vista Zoo’s English-style portal.

The quality of associating aesthetic beauty with animal keeping seems to have been elicited from the experience of the observation of aquatic animals. In an article discussing the artistic value of aquarium observation, Nola Semczyszyn considers the subject of environmental aesthetics, specifically around the observation of aquariums as artwork themselves: “Seeing natural objects in art categories can be creative, and “metaphorical seeing” can yield deeper aesthetic appreciation” (Semczyszyn 2013).

This historical trend that possibly started with the rise of nineteenth-century zoological gardens and has achieved its peak in the Age of aquariums, still exists in the present time. Architects of the twenty-first century have been experimenting even more boldly with public aquariums’ format and immersion potential. Now, it seems that the beauty around the observation of aquatic animals not only lies within spectatorship but also in having the feeling of being surrounded by the ocean itself.


Bernd Brunner (2005): The Ocean at Home: An Illustrated History of the Aquarium, Princeton Architectural Press.

Silvia Granata (2021):  The Victorian Aquarium: Literary Discussions on Nature, Culture, and Science, Manchester University Press.

Nola Semczyszyn (2013): “Public Aquariums and Marine Aesthetics”, in: Contemporary Aesthetics, 11.

Rebecca Stott (2003): Theatres of Glass: The Woman Who Brought the Sea to the City, Short Books.

Vernon N. Kisling (2001): Zoo and Aquarium History: Ancient Animal Collections to Zoological Gardens, CRC Press.