Historic Renovation to House Monkeys at KC Zoo

kczoo-horizontalKansas City Zoo has been workly lately to give itself  a face-lift.  The Zoo, considered by locals to be the "red-headed step kid" to the world-famous St. Louis Zoo (a mere 3 hours' drive away), has seen less and less support in recent decades.  To counter this, the Zoo has set about new construction and renovations projects throughout the facilty.  Rendered Aerial View of New Entry

On the heels of the recently re-opened front entry plaza, including streamlined ticketing, parking, and otters as soon as you walk in, the Zoo is currently working on a renovation of its historic 1909 building.  This building, which started its life as the sole animal habitat for the Zoo, has been through several iterations, most recently as an education building. 

Otters in Their New Home

Now, however, construction is reclaiming its primary use, and inside the building a rainforest exhibit is being created.  Tropical plants are being flown in from Florida to make as realistic a home as possible for the monkey species, anteaters, tropical birds, and capybara which will call this place home.

The relatively small budget of $5.1 million will allow for nearly 8000 square feet of exhibit space and 5000 square feet of support.  The highlight of the exhibit is a glass enclosed bridge through the trees, where guests should be able to view monkeys playing in the branches, up close.

Rainforest Pool Under Construction

This exhibit is due to open in May, coinciding with the Zoo's Centennial celebration.  Other upcoming plans include new homes for polar bears and penguins.

Messages and Meanings...Part 2

Message and meaning are two terms that are generally used interchangeably, but have distinct implications in relation to exhibitry.  The message is the verbal communication received by the visitor. This is the intended communication from the zoo; what is written on the signs and the underlying communication used to help define the design.  The meaning is then determined by the contextual clues given by the environment plus the message (Robinson, 1995).  The meaning is what the visitor interprets from the exhibit, and therefore is what ultimately affects their attitude and educational experience. 

Message = Educational Big Idea.  Meaning = Visitor Interpretation.

historic zoo settingContext can easily be in contradiction to the message, which can cause visitors to walk away with an unclear meaning.  Such is the case in historic zoo exhibits where, for example, steel bars on concrete boxes stand between the visitor and the animal, while at the same time, graphics discuss the importance of this animal in a healthy ecosystem.  Before the Philadelphia Zoo underwent a much needed renovation of its Cat House, the historic exhibit was an excellent example of this confusion.

Ambiguity of meaning will undermine the effectiveness of an exhibit.  Therefore, a successful exhibit would convey both a positive conservation message and an unambiguous meaning of respect.

Philly cat house pre-renoThis does not, however, define a successful exhibit as a landscape immersion exhibit.  Architecture can easily be incorporated into an exhibit, or even be the dominant feature of the exhibit.  However, this is a subject for a later discussion.  The creation of a compelling storyline along with the educational message, backed by all aspects of design following through on the story, would make a successful and clear message and take away meaning for guests.   

Next, we'll discuss how learning affects meaning.

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Messages and Meanings...Part 1

Excerpted from my thesis entitled "Historic Zoo Architecture: Creating New Meaning"

Miscommunication, whether between two people or between a facility and its masses of visitors, is a very important issue in zoo design today.  Zoo professionals strive to educate the public on the ideals of conservation.  Using exhibit design and intricate interpretives and signage, zoos attempt to educate while entertaining.  In many cases, zoo professionals and designers overlook the contextual clues we unknowingly pass onto visitors.  Sometimes our biases blind us to details that may affect how visitors receive the conservation message we are trying to pass on. 

To further complicate things, zoos today are oftentimes utilizing exhibits that are old and outdated.  With over 100 zoos in the United States having opened over 50 years ago, a good number of exhibits in use today are outdated (Kisling, Jr., 2001).   These exhibits can carry more obvious contradictory clues to the conservation message, and create a situation in which visitors walk away not understanding the message and even worse, having negative feelings toward the animal or zoo.   Exhibits that are dominated by human forces, such as art and architecture, may oppose conservation and preservation ideals creating an ambiguous meaning for visitors.   Art and architecture are human centered activities that can create the subliminal message "We are more important than wildlife and nature".

Historic Elephant House, in use as of 2003

In this day and age, a great many zoos are considered historic, sustaining historic structures, and limited in space by urban situations.  Zoo designers are facing the challenge of not only increasing the quality and level of communication of zoo messages but also reusing these historic structures in a way that allows clear positive meaning for visitors.  The question now is:  Can this be done?