Learning at Zoos...Do they get it?

Learning is the culmination of perceptions and knowledge.  It is assessed by changes in attitude and behavior (Powell, 1969).  Therefore, creation of meaning is a form of learning.  " the means through which we acquire not only skills and knowledge, but values, attitudes, and emotional reactions" (Taylor, 2002).  As educators know, people learn by different means:  visual clues, reading, hands-on experience, imitation, and so on.  Successful learning generally occurs through repetition and utilization of multiple channels of education (Powell, 1969).  In assigning meaning to a zoo exhibit, a person can learn through contextual clues of the exhibit, written signage, hands-on interpretives, and docents. Although several channels of learning are available to a zoo visitor, it is important to remember that successful education depends on the "inclination and ability to receive and to respond" to these education channels (Taylor, 2002).  Understanding that visitors may or may not be visiting the zoo with the intention of learning is a first step to more successfully educating the visitors.  This means that we must not only provide interesting signage and interpretives, but we have the daunting task of ensuring that every aspect of the exhibit follows the educational message we are intending to send. 

Bronx Zoo

Additionally, we have to create an environment where learning is fun.  Usually, people don't come to the zoo to read.  Walking up to an exhibit with a slew text on a sign can be overly intimidating to visitors.  I've done studies on visitor behavior and have found that barely 2% of visitors completely read text panels next to zoo exhibits.  Most glance at the sign to learn the name of the animal or some other easily accessible information, depending on how the sign is laid out, like where its from or what it eats.  Therefore, learning and meaning assessment is generally accoomplished through visual cues and sensorial experience, and not intentional educational signage. 

Text Heavy Sign

Because of this, many designers live by the notion of "Edutainment" (educational entertainment).  Obviously, this style of design requires us to develop an in-depth story for experience alongside the equally important educational "big idea".  The two intertwine and support each other.  Recently, edutainment has meant an engaging, true to life environment, completely immersing the visitor in the natural habitat of the animal along with the region's cultural cues.  However, I question if we cannot spread our wings a bit from the reality of a specific place to encompass more of a fantasy feeling, to entertain, while still meeting our educational goals. 

Ultimately, learning in zoos and aquariums (and museums, as well) must be recongnized as a crucial component in our designs.  Being responsible designers means to be aware of the meaning our guests assign to the experience they just encountered.  Did the rollercoaster through the orangutan exhibit subconsciously lower the value of the orangutan to the visitor, or did it heighten the excitement of the experience thereby increasing the excitement associated with all aspects of the experience, including the animals related?  Did the addition of text heavy graphics throughout the exhibit make the exhibit less fun for the visitor, or make the information less accessible to them?  What about that trench drain at the foot of the underwater viewing area?  How does that affect the viewer's experience? 

Zoo Atlanta

At the heart of the issue is why we are doing what we do.  Connection.  If someone doesnt entirely get all of the educational goals at the end of their experience, but do walk away thinking, Man, those Orangutans are cool!  Then we did our job, in my humble opinion. 

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?