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Mystic — U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., joined Mystic Aquarium officials Thursday morning to announce that the aquarium has received the National Medal for Museum and Library Service, making it the only aquarium or zoo chosen for the honor in 2014.
It is also the only Connecticut institution chosen for the medal, which recognizes a library or museum’s impact on the community.
“This institution has become part of the fabric of the state and part of the fabric of what it means to grow up in Connecticut,” said Murphy, who said he has fond memories of visiting the aquarium as a child.
He said the aquarium was one of only 10 museums and libraries chosen for this year’s medal and one of only 140 institutions recognized in the history of the award. Mystic Aquarium is the first aquarium to receive the medal since 2009.
“This is a place where young people can come not only to be educated but to be intrigued and engaged,” said aquarium board of trustees member Susette Tibus, who called the award a “great honor.”
U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., couldn’t make it to Mystic but participated in Thursday’s announcement over Skype. He said he’s made “countless trips” to the aquarium as a parent and emphasized the importance of Mystic Aquarium’s research as well as its exhibits.
The medal is a “monumental milestone for the aquarium,” said Blumenthal, who expects its services to be “enhanced and advanced” by the recognition.
Murphy said the aquarium stood out among thousands of museums and libraries nationwide, in part because it demonstrated courage by expanding its outreach beyond its borders.
Mystic Aquarium was nominated by the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe, which noted the work the aquarium does for a Native-American cultural exchange program for high school students in Point Lay, Alaska, said Murphy. The aquarium has also provided education to underserved communities in Stamford.
First lady Michelle Obama will present the medal to aquarium officials on May 8 at the White House. Justin Richard, a 32-year-old North Stonington resident who said the aquarium has helped shape his career goals, will join officials at the ceremony.
Richard, who was raised in Massachusetts, said visits to Mystic Aquarium as a child helped him develop an interest in marine science. He volunteered at the aquarium as an undergraduate studying biology at Connecticut College, and after graduation, he took a job as an animal trainer there.
“The aquarium has been such a huge part of my life,” said Richard, who said the staff supported his interest in research while he worked as a trainer. His curiosity about beluga whales’ behavioral habits developed into a doctorate-level research project at the University of Rhode Island, although he still conducts the research in Mystic.
Murphy said he’s hopeful that “Justin’s story gets to be multiplied by the thousands” going forward.
The senator, who was born the year Mystic Aquarium was founded, said he feels a personal attachment to the institution. After Thursday’s announcement, he took the time to meet an African penguin named Purple Gray.
Surrounded by curious children, Murphy asked Senior Penguin Trainer Tracy Camp about Purple Gray’s lifespan and native habitat. And when the penguin had a bit of an accident, he greeted it with a sense of humor.
“Upside: Just announced Mystic Aquarium won prestigious national medal,” he tweeted after leaving the event. “Downside: one of their penguins pooped on my shoe.”