Education and Exhibit Design
The Rotterdam Zoo approach
Dutch Zoo Design in historical perspective
by Hans Post and Robert van Herk
(former and present Head of Education in Rotterdam Zoo).
This article first appeared in EAZA News 37/2002.
Published in ZooLex with permission of EAZA and the authors in November 2002.


This story deals with the role that education can - and increasingly does - play in creating new exhibits. We will first give a short retrospective view on the educational influence on zoo design. This review may be based on the Dutch - and even more Rotterdam - development, but I am sure many of you will recognise the history. We will then describe the current situation in Rotterdam Zoo and we will provide you with an educational design kit to facilitate adequate designing.

We can point out four phases of educational influence.

Phase 1

Let us call this phase the prehistoric period: a period which started 200 years ago and lasted until at least the 1960's. A time when zoos could manage without an education department. A time when often the curator arranged some necessary signs near new enclosures. Efforts extending beyond signs were unnecessary, as signs were the sole educational medium at that time.

The designing process in this period is easy to imagine: just picture constructing a simple cage for the animal. Immediately before the official opening someone notices a sign is still missing. That is the point where the curator is snatched from his current task and is asked to jump into the role of educator. In these prehistoric times there was no structural educational influence. The quality of education depended on how enlightened the director or curator was and his or her interests. Education was primarily a side-issue and seldom even called education.

Phase 2: the island educator - 1960 - 1980

Fortunately things improved. This happened in the early 1970's when finally some education departments, comprised of teachers who could educate visiting school children, were created. This was an important improvement. The teachers were soon also given the responsibility of producing signs; a task they took up enthusiastically, but without any background in presentation techniques. These new zoo employees were considered misfits, they were tolerated by colleagues but isolated on an island and were not really part of the zoo family.

Inspired by innovations in the United States, European enclosures came to resemble landscapes and cages became old fashioned. However zoo design was still an erratic process lacking a comprehensive unifying concept. Each new enclosure was an individual entity and the role of the new educators was modest; just providing signs.

Phase 3: the recognized educator - 1980's

The third phase, occuring in the 1980's, still lacked a prominent role in the designing process for the zoo educator. However the school teacher had metamorphosed into a widely skilled educator. Small exhibits were now organized. Presentation techniques were developed using a wide base of practical experience and were sometimes realized by professionals with totally different backgrounds, for example copy-writers, mass communicators and designers.

Education was increasingly recognized as an important aspect of the zoo mission. The role of zoos had changed dramatically. Nature conservation became an important issue while breeding programmes, reintroductions and a new standard of ethics became considerations in obtaining new zoo animals. Educators had a recognized role in implementing the nature conservation message, but still they stood aside when it came to zoo designing. However, they became more and more involved in the end and a bigger budget was set aside for signage. This third phase is still in practice in many zoos.

Phase 4: the utilized educator - 1990 until ?

In the fourth phase the role of an educator is much more prominent. Representatives of the educational department are part of project teams concerned with the building of new enclosures. Educational staff members at Rotterdam Zoo are even part of a permanent team concerned with all zoo design. The educator is involved with the designs in every stage of the process. A necessary involvement? We will explain why.

Holistic approach

A well known premises of the communication theory is:

"It is not possible not to communicate."

Which means that even when one does not say or write a word, one is communicating. We tell something about ourselves by the way we are dressed, by our body language and facial expression, by simply not reacting when it is expected, etc. These forms of communication are referred to as non verbal communication.

Education is a special form of communication. We could even state:

"It is not possible not to contribute to education."

Which means that everything a zoo does do, does not do, communicates or does not communicate, contributes to the educational message, or rather contributes to the effect of zoo education. This is true for the exhibited animal collection, the design of enclosures and the tone of the message emphasis. We call these the primary, secondary and tertiary education in our zoo. But the attitude of the employee at the entrance also influences zoo education effectiveness - why should I believe all the nature conservation messages presented by a bunch of jerks -, as does the way we dispose of our waste - the nature conservation message will be stronger when the zoo's policies and practices are environmentally friendly - as does the attitude of the keepers - you are our guest or... get out of my way I am working. In short, education is much more than adding an attractive sign, designing a nice enclosure or choosing an 'educational' animal; the whole zoo contributes to the educational message. If we want to get a message, such as "the importance of nature conservation" across, we have to ensure that every facet of the zoo supports this message.

We could simply conclude that an educator should be involved in the entire range of zoo activities, including activities that traditionally belong to the public relations and marketing department. We could in fact say that the educational department and the pr and marketing department have mutual interests: what educators achieve can be damaged by PR-marketing and vice versa.

In short, the fourth phase shows a more prominent educational influence, present even at an early stage of the designing process. The recognized educator is now fully utilized.

Design Team

At Rotterdam Zoo we have structured this educational influence in the form of our design team.

All new projects in Rotterdam Zoo are part of a global concept plan: the Master Plan. This plan divides the zoo in continents displaying the animals in their simulated biotopes. Each new project undergoes the same designing process.

During the initiation phase, the ideas are developed. Ideas come from many different employees in the organisation. If an idea fits within the development of the plan, a work group begins the task of putting together a list of requirements. The work group is made up of employees from various disciplines. We also feel it is important to allow the end users to be involved from the beginning.

Rough draft

After the list of requirements is determined, the Rotterdam Zoo design team is given the assignment to make a rough draft. This design team is a group of advisors within the Rotterdam Zoo, concerning the designing of the master plan and other projects. The composition of the team is as follows. One of our curators, Gerard Visser, functions as the design co-ordinator. In addition to possessing a great practical zoological and zootechnical knowledge, he also has strong design and organisational qualities. Second, the head of our botanical department Jacques Radder is a part of the team. He is responsible for the arrangement of the landscaping and for planning the botanical composition. Third, the head of the education department is a part of the team. He is responsible for the visitors' educational experience and creation of educational media. An architect is a permanent member of the team. And last but not least our project manager is part of the team. He has no designing influence but is there for his financial and technical knowhow. Furthermore the team is supported by various freelance employees.

The design team develops and oversees the complete design of the zoo. That means preparing the rough sketch of an enclosure in a biotope. The sketches will be integrated with the design of the completed part of the relevant continent and the part still to be built. Interior areas, exterior areas, visitor paths, details of the fences, ponds, viewing points, signs, signposts, sponsor boards, and seating are included in the process.

Project preparation

After the acceptance of the rough draft, the next phase in the project preparation begins, the creating of the temporary design. The design team also creates this design. Each person contributes his specific expertise to the preparation of this temporary design. Through weekly, or sometimes more frequent, meetings, one integrated, presentable design is created with sketches to clarify specific parts, which can be agreed upon. After acceptance of the temporary design, follows the next phase: the drawing of the definitive design. In the previous project phases, parts could still be relatively easily adjusted, in this phase this becomes still more difficult. Also the financial clock is ticking...

Keep checking

Major changes in the design are sent back to the creators of the list of requirements. It is important to still check whether this is asking too much, and if the requirement is truly realistic. In this phase, contact with the creators of the list of requirements and the end users involvement with the project, therefore, guarantees public support. The definitive design in our zoo consists of several parts. A landscape design which includes the borders of existing structures is portrayed. The architect has drawn building plans and blueprints, and in an artists impression he has made it more understandable for the zoo employees. From the presentation side, the necessary media are designed and sketched. The decoration of the interior and exterior areas are also designed by presentation. This comes from the conviction that the biotope itself brings across a very clear educational message. Often even better than an added educational medium can.

The design team tries to outline all the parts of the project in general. Great attention to detail also includes the proposed choices of materials. Time after time, we noticed in previous projects that there must be as little as possible misunderstanding concerning the supplied sketches.


During the developmental phases, the team regularly experiences challenges. Usually these occur due to costs or time limitations. In the past, we have sometimes made the wrong decisions because of this. We decided to cutback in design and in the external quality of objects that the public sees. We do not do that anymore. If cutbacks on a project need to be made, then it is better to eliminate entire parts than to reduce the overall quality of the project. It is better to not build a part or build it later, than sacrifice quality across the board.


After the definitive design is approved, the scope of work is ready and the contractor starts to work, then the role of the design team changes. The team oversees the quality of the construction and they can be found there on a regular basis. We do not look at the technical part of the construction, that is what other people are for, but definitely at the final design, the outer surface that the visitors will see.

Of course there are several ways to integrate education in your zoos, but Rotterdam Zoo is very happy with its own method. The design team guarantees that our educational mission is embedded and we consider that very important: is education not the start of nature conservation?