The DoSeum children’s museum did not have a global pandemic in mind when it agreed last year to present an exhibit based on Jules Verne’s 1870 novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea, but the show’s themes of isolation, a monster haunting the globe, and eventual reemergence resonate with the present moment.

Even the first line of Verne’s book reads as hauntingly current, if not for its specific year:

The year 1866 was signalised by a remarkable incident, a mysterious and puzzling phenomenon, which doubtless no one has yet forgotten.

Yet visitors to the Voyage to the Deep exhibit at the DoSeum will set aside the pandemic for a few moments to delve into the undersea world that inspired Verne.

“The whole thing is very immersive,” said Meredith Doby, the DoSeum’s vice president of exhibits, during a walk-through of the exhibit’s darkened interior. “It really feels like you’re under the sea.”

A climb-able wooden dinghy points toward the Nautilus, a large-scale version of the famous submarine at the heart of the novel. Nearly every detail is interactive, with portholes showing changeable views inside real-life submarines, a bubble-filled pipe organ to play sea shanties, and a double set of controls that requires kids to cooperate to “move” the submarine left, right, forward, backward, up, and down.

People interact with the Nautilus’ controls at the DoSeum’s new Voyage to the Deep exhibit. Credit: Nick Wagner / San Antonio Report

“So we’ve got to work together to steer this ship,” Doby told two young girls at the controls.

The exhibit takes the technology of Verne’s day as its starting point, with a display showing how a submarine dives and surfaces, and updates the murky, largely unexplored world of the oceans that Verne knew with current science.

One placard titled “Tall Tales” corrects some facts the speculative author got wrong, including that the Nautilus once reached a depth of 16,000 meters, or about 10 miles (the show was developed by the Australian National Maritime Museum, and thus figures are metric), while the deepest point of the oceans is actually a mere 11,034 meters.

“There’s a fair amount of STEM concepts, keeping in line with the museum’s approach and style,” Doby said, referring to the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math. The exhibit is geared toward kids ages 5 to 10 but welcomes anyone with a sense of curiosity and a sense of humor.

Next to illuminated dials reading “tachometer” and “battery charge level” – the self-sustaining Nautilus was run on electricity – is a dial reading “poo tank level,” near a peephole into the lavatory where an animated figure sits on the toilet.

The fictional Nautilus was a self-sustaining enclosed environment large enough to hold Captain Nemo’s library of 12,000 books. Those are referenced in the exhibit on the shelves of a central cabinet of curiosities. Alongside exotic shells, sea creatures, and navigational instruments are bound books at adult height with clever author-title combinations punning on sea themes, including Marine Invertebrates by C. Q. Cumber, Batten Down the Hatches by Ceasar Rough, and Man Overboard by Eileen Dover.

Some content is more serious, including a placard noting that Nemo’s sole dependence on the sea for food, power, oxygen, and the necessities of life echoes our own need to maintain healthy oceans and waterways.

A kelp forest display near the entrance to Voyage to the Deep recalls the hit documentary My Octopus Teacher, in which a filmmaking diver intimately explores a kelp forest off the coast of South Africa, learning that all facets of life make up an interdependent organism. In the exhibit, visitors learn that kelp “trees” can grow to 100 feet tall, support many underwater species, and are harvested for food including ice cream, jelly, and toothpaste.

An immersive version of Jules Verne’s Nautilus submarine acts as the Voyage to the Deep‘s main attraction and learning space. Credit: Nick Wagner / San Antonio Report

Doby pointed to Verne’s curiosity in exploring the unknown as a primary motivation for the exhibit and a way to inspire kids to take on their own explorations.

“There’s so much of the ocean floor that remains unmapped and undiscovered,” she said, noting that more people have been on the moon than to the deepest part of the ocean.

Special activities in the upstairs Innovation Station will include a collaboration with new Sea Life San Antonio aquarium curator Nick Ireland, who will lead workshops to teach kids how to make their own aquariums and care for fish.

Like Verne’s maritime interests, the Sea Life aquarium originated in Scotland, and Doby hopes learning the fascination of fish might set a seaworthy course for the future.

“In all [DoSeum] exhibits, we try to think about future concepts, what kids might be doing in the future, what jobs they might have, what career paths they take. … Maybe they’ll leave it to further discovery in our future and also, hopefully, some level of conservation for ocean life, if they come to respect and love it through an exhibit like this.”

Voyage to the Deep is free with regular DoSeum admission and runs through Sept. 25. The DoSeum maintains its pandemic safety protocols, including timed admission, capacity limits and social distancing where possible, regular sanitization of exhibits, and a requirement for face coverings for those 10 and older, with masks highly encouraged for kids ages 2 to 9. All protocols are found here.

Nicholas Frank

Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with an indie rock...