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Troubles in Paradise - Zoo Design for Conservation Education
Monika Fiby, Zoo Design and Consulting, Manager of ZooLex Zoo Design Organization, Vienna
Presentation at the 2010 annual conference of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums in Cologne

Troubles in Paradise

Fashions in zoo design, whether it is dioramas or immersion exhibits, are not the factor deciding on the success of conservation education, but rather the message that an exhibit conveys. Even a row of well equiped cages can work for conservation education if the interpretation in this context is about breeding and not about habitat protection. Habitat immersion exhibits show animals in idealized natural paradises. They are self-explanatory. All other designs using non-paradise objects like bars, plastic balls and steel food trays need to be carefully interpreted in order not to irritate and confuse the intended message.

In 2009, artists implanted paradoxical objects in animal exhibits at Zoo Schönbrunn in Vienna to reflect the troubled relationship of nature and civilization. The temporary exhibition was called "Troubles in Paradise". Ironically, paradoxical arrangements can be found in common animal exhibits also.

It is not always obvious which kind of "troubled paradise" should be presented to the zoo visitors and which story they should be told. Making this decision is part of zoo design. What should be the message? How can this message be translated into content for communication with the visitor and what type of sourrounding, including the animal itself, will provide the appropriate context?

Content - Context - Message

Jon Coe introduced the concept of content, context and message into zoo design.

  • Context: Exhibit surroundings that the visitors perceives - consciously and unconsciously.

  • Content: What the zoo wants to communicate - for example what the graphics say.

  • Message: What a visitor experiences and remembers - cognitive information filtered through the context of the surrounding, distractions, prejudices and attitudes of the visitors themselves.
  • The idea behind this concept is that the visitor's context is not just the animal, but also the exhibit of the animal, the visitor space, and other people around. The context is the framework for the content that the visitor can find on the signs. The signs may tell the visitor that there are several subspecies of tigers that one can recognize by colour and size; that Siberian tigers live in the Northeast of Asia; that tigers are endangered because of poaching; that they loose their forest habitat due to logging; and that the zoo's tigers get sturdy balls for enrichment. In the case of the Bronx Zoo tiger exhibit, much of the content is visible. The visitor can see the size and the fur pattern of the Siberian tiger; that it feels comfortable in the snow; that its exhibit is forested; and that there is a ball in the shelter with traces of tiger claws and teeth. This content is supported by the context. Additionally, the visitor experiences the clear view of the massive animal in close proximity. She may enjoy the weather protection by the shelter and the tranquillity that allows her to read and observe without distraction.

    Together, the context and the content create messages in the visitor's mind. These can be as simple as "this cat is impressive". They may include new facts about tiger biology, assurance about the zoo caring well for its tigers, concern for the fate of tigers and an interest in conservation. This would be successful conservation education.

    Jon Coe introduced the concept of content, context and message together with habitat immersion design. Both work well together for conservation education. Even when visitors do not read any signs they will probably unconsciously make the right connection between an animal and its habitat, just from what they experience. For habitat immersion design it is therefore critical that every detail fits into the theme of the habitat and supports the content.

    Which style of zoo design?

    A number of proven principles can help with zoo design. Their effectiveness was found in visitor studies about perception of and attitudes towards animals in various types of exhibits. However, the combination of circumstances in zoos is so complex that only professional visitor studies can tell if a given exhibit communicates as intended.

    At the Minnesota Zoo it was found in a post-visit study of the Russian Far East exhibits that guests were able to describe animal characteristics and to mention the animal in relation to its habitat: "Comments from post-visit guests have significant amounts of content and vocabulary that match the exhibition labels."

    The Arizona Sonora Desert Museum aims at encouraging conservation. One conservation goal and intended message of the Javelina Exhibit is to teach local residents, how to safely coexist with wild javelina. The zoo developed the content for supporting this message by offering visitors a comment notebook, to find out what they wanted to know about javelina, before interpretive labels were designed. Based upon the responses, a series of informal "flip-up" labels was developed and tested at the exhibit. The final series of labels explains adaptations, social structure and ecological connections, and offers information for local residents about appropriate ways to handle human/javelina interactions.

    The African Ungulates Conservation Center at Woburn Zoo is an example for a taxonomic exhibition. This design is useful for breeding several species of the same taxon. The context of this exhibit is a functional building with simple paddocks. The content for the visitor is about the zoo's involvement in conservation breeding and conservation projects, delivered in personal conversation. Since personal coversation is the most effective way of communication, we may assume that the message that visitors gain will be about the zoo's involvement in the conservation of endangered African ungulates.

    The Hamill Family Play Zoo at Brookfield Zoo Chicago aims at giving children positive nature and animal experiences. The intended message is to enjoy nature and to want to care for animals. The context allows the handling of natural materials and all kinds of role play. The content of the graphics suggests caregivers how to continue the experiences at home. The effectiveness of this zoo exhibition for conservation education was ensured by careful evaluation.

    Habitat immersion exhibits are suitable, but not the only clue to conservation education. Cages and dioramas, taxonomic and ecological themes can also work for conservation education if adequate messages are delivered. We need to be aware that everything that the visitor experiences at the zoo influences these messages. If the visitor's experiences are contradictory, the result can be an uninteded message. If context and content support each other and a suitable conservation message, chances are good that visitors will get inspired and motivated for conservation action.


    Artistic installation in a rhinoceros exhibit.
    © Zoo Schönbrunn, 2009


    Paradoxical object in an otter exhibit.
    © Monika Fiby


    Together, the context and the content create messages in the visitor's mind.
    © www.zoolex.org


    We need to think about the intended message first and then find a design that support this message.
    © www.zoolex.org


    Animal garbage bins convey the wrong message on how to value and treat animals.
    © Monika Fiby


    A recent example of habitat immersion design: Russian Far East grizzly bears at the Minnesota Zoo.
    © www.zoolex.org


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