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Exhibit Design and the Aesthetic of Nature
John Bierlein, Manager of Planning and Interpretive Exhibits, Woodland Park Zoo, Seattle, Washington
This article appeared in AZA Communique in March 2003
Published in ZooLex with permission of AZA and the author in August 2003
Russian translation by Alla Nikitina (2004) in
PDF format (123 KB)

Most of us find the beauty of nature enjoyable and we are aware that certain environments evoke strong feelings in us. We do not really understand all of the causes for these feelings but some possible explanations are proposed by prospect-refuge theory, the need-for-nature premise, and the biophilia hypothesis. Long before these theories were given names, the aesthetic of nature played a significant role in our thoughts about exhibit design at Woodland Park Zoo and at other institutions where realism and landscape immersion have been used to create naturalistic exhibits. The underlying goal of this approach is to stimulate psychological responses that deepen the appreciation of animals, their habitats, and the interdependence of life.

Ultimately, the look and feel of our exhibits is symbolic of the linkages we try to make between our increasingly urban world and the receding domain of nature. Aesthetic considerations may seem like theoretical fluff in the face of day-to-day priorities but, in the end, they are a reflection of our institution’s regard for nature.

Many will judge the merit, health, and wholeness of our institutions on the basis of what they see, hear and otherwise experience during a relatively short visit. Though they tend to respond most immediately to an animal’s appearance and behavior rather than the setting, an animal’s surroundings can have a profound impact on our visitors’ emotions and the meanings they construct. Architectures of confinement, symbols of human dominance, and views of people surrounding animals may distract the visitor’s attention and reinforce the psychological relationship between humans as captors and animals as captives.

Though the color, line, form, texture and motion of an animal may be inherently pleasing to our eyes, they are also adaptations for surviving in particular environments. Knowledge of these environments ultimately enhances our understanding and appreciation of animals and can even make them seem more beautiful. The eyes see what the mind knows.

At Woodland Park Zoo, much effort goes into studying the animal’s natural habitat. Typically, these habitats are more complex and fine grained than what first meets the eye. It is pretentious to suggest that we can recreate or replicate natural habitats; at best we can represent them, approximate them, or pay humble tribute to them. One of our goals is to accentuate the inseparable connection between the survival of animal species and the survival of their wild habitats. Our Long-Range Plan establishes nature as the reference point and as the most appropriate aesthetic context for animal exhibits. Trends in design come and go on the tides of opinion, but nature is timeless. “Nature never goes out of style.” (Lee Ehmke, 2002)


The route of realism is punctuated by pitfalls and paradoxes along the way. For example, advances in the use of synthetic materials to mimic nature allow us to fool the camera (and one another) evermore effectively. We must be careful about what we choose to simulate, where we choose to place these simulations, and how much attention we want to draw to them. When visitor conversations default to discussions about what is real and what is not, artificial components of our exhibits can detract from the appreciation of the animal in relationship to natural habitat. Today, one in ten people on the planet visits a zoo or aquarium annually. In a world full of simulations and clever illusions, zoos and aquariums increasingly become the authenticators of what is real and still alive. It is difficult to justify the exhibition of artificial animals and live animals together in the same cone of view or in close proximity without providing an explanation.

Landscape immersion

Landscape immersion attempts to place visitors inside the habitat landscape by extending the complexity of the animal’s environment into areas where visitors walk, stand or sit. The intent is to help them more easily imagine themselves as respectful interlopers in the animal's wild domain rather than feeling separated from the rest of nature. It is possible to create realistic-looking exhibits without using immersion techniques. For example, we can create a pathway to an area that looks architectural and urban from which visitors observe a scene that appears to be wild. In this approach, visitors are physically removed from our habitat representation. While it may not always be practical to immerse our visitors at the same time they’re viewing animals, we can often create multiple viewpoints and shelters where different views of the same landscape can be experienced. Between these viewing nodes, the pathway can be bordered by plants resembling those found in the animal’s wild habitat along with deadfall, rocks, water, topographic variation, and other complexities that serve as signals of an animal’s natural environment.

In landscape immersion areas, we can also provide informal views through filtered thickets, or keyholes carved in simulated caves or pruned in dense vegetation. These unexpected views of animals can catch visitors by surprise. Elements of surprise and even false danger can heighten the senses and ignite additional interest. The idea is to encourage a perspective in which we experience animals more on their terms than on ours – a counterpoint to design approaches that are more human-centered and bring symbols of the urban environment into the place of animals.

Cultural resonance

Our fascination with animals seems universal and knows no political or cultural boundaries. In today’s world of more than 6.3 billion people, humans live in or near almost every habitat capable of supporting other species. Cultural resonance is an approach that uses cultural architectures or artifacts to suggest the presence of people who live in or near the habitats we are portraying. This can provide a context for emphasizing the importance of respecting, valuing, and involving people of other cultures while pursuing in situ conservation projects. Because of the ubiquity of humans, cultural resonance is a logical outgrowth of realism and immersion rather than a new movement unto itself. However, we must take great care to ensure that cultural elements do not overpower the appreciation of animals in the context of habitat. Similarly, it is essential to show respect for people of other cultures and to involve them in aspects of the design process and interpretive planning.

Behavioral enrichment/activity-based design

Our first concern in designing exhibits must be to safeguard the well being of the animals in our care. Exhibits must be humane and look humane. Discussions of behavioral enrichment and animal activity should begin early in the design process. If an exhibit is to be naturalistic, we must try to provide behavioral enrichment through environmental means. A variety of behavioral choices should be available and one of our greatest challenges is to encourage species-typical behaviors without reverting to the use of objects from the human world or to symbols of human dominance and control. This challenge offers a continuing opportunity for creativity and innovation, though many options have already been developed including simulated seedpods that serve as bird feeders and artificial trees or termite mounds that conceal mechanical devices that can provide various stimuli.

A continual striving

Through an interfusion of ideas from many disciplines, our exhibits represent a continual striving rather than an end point that can be reached and then viewed as complete. Ultimately, the design and operation of an exhibit should demonstrate a dedication to our core values and mission. “Exhibits are the outward manifestation of an institution’s soul.” (Cynthia Vernon, 1997)

Exhibits cannot say everything by themselves, but they must be designed with conservation messages in mind. In the past we may have thought of ourselves as “meaning makers” and of our visitors as “meaning takers.” In reality, our visitors construct their own meanings. The physical context we offer is just one of many factors involved in the construction of these meanings. If during the course of a visit, people learn something, communicate with others, and develop an aesthetic connection with animals and the concept of habitat, perhaps we are making some progress. “In the end, we will conserve only what we love.” (Baba Dioum, 1968)

Spruce serve as "comb trees" for mountain goats seen in the background of the Northern Trail at Woodland Park Zoo.
© Larry Sammons, Woodland Park Zoo

Brown bears further along on the Northern Trail.
© Woodland Park Zoo

A naturalistic exhibit for western lowland gorillas opened at Woodland Park in 1979.
© Woodland Park Zoo

Entrance to the African village.
© Dennis Conner, Woodland Park Zoo

Surprise view of gray wolves through filtered landscape at Woodland Park Zoo.
© Woodland Park Zoo

A “key-hole view” of the Northern Trail exhibit at Woodland Park Zoo.
© Karen Anderson, Woodland Park Zoo

Revised 2017-05-17
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