Zoological Gardens and Curiosity Cabinets


An ebony langur (Trachypithecus auratus), photographed July 23th, 2008 at the Bronx zoo. Of all the animals at the zoo people stop to watch primates more than nearly any other group of animals. The monkeys & apes watch the primates on the other side of the barrier, too.

"What's that animal?"

"It's like a zebra mixed with a horse!"

"I don't like it."

And with that mother and teenage daughter walked off to inspect the red river hogs and gorillas of the Bronx zoo's Congo exhibit, ignoring the plastic slab explaining that the okapi in front of them is related to giraffes. I've seen the same behavior over and over again at numerous zoos and museums; people walking up to an exhibit, commenting on how weird or wonderful it is, and walking off to the next curiosity. Museums and zoos may now be multi-million dollar institutions filled with hi-tech displays and informative text yet most of this supplementary material goes unread. Just being able to see the strange and exotic is the draw; what the strange creatures and artifacts are is of secondary importance.

The 4th floor of the American Museum of Natural History is a perfect example of unappreciated design planning. While many museums lay out their fossils as they appear in the fossil record (a scheme, I must admit, I prefer) the AMNH decided to eschew convention and opt for a roughly cladistic floor plan. The stars of the fossil halls take up the main track while lesser-known creatures occupy side alcoves, but as far as I can tell no one unfamiliar with cladistics comes away from the museum with a better understanding of the concept. (Indeed, despite the desire to educate people about evolution major evolutionary transitions are shunted off into the corners. If you want to know about them you have to go looking for them.) The question on the minds of many visitors is "Where is the Tyrannosaurus?", the path to it requiring shuffling through the gift shop, and the cladistic floor plan is ignored.

There is more to the AMNH exhibit than just fossils and plastic plaques, though. The side alcoves are dotted with interactive screens that play explanations of different animals and their relationships to other creatures in the hall. Given that these were set up over a decade ago a few are broken and others are out of date, and usually the only people I see using them are children who repeatedly slam on the center button wondering if it's a video game. They usually scamper off disappointed. The interactive screens in the Hall of Biodiversity suffer from another problem altogether; the flat stone surfaces of the hall make the noise so deafening that anyone who watches the videos can barely hear them.

Despite their efforts many zoos and museums are little different than the curiosity cabinets and zoological gardens of centuries past. Things are more organized, the science is updated, and in the case of zoos the animals are generally treated much better, but the main reason people still visit these places is to see things that are extraordinary. I know because I do this too. Occasionally I'll force myself to read some explanatory text but generally I just go to observe like most everyone else. The question is "How can these institutions more actively engage visitors during their visit?"

Some zoos have taken a more active role in engaging visitors through the use of enthusiastic (sometimes even over-enthusiastic) docents. The Philadelphia zoo, for instance, has armies of volunteers who all but grab your arm and chat you up about the animals in their enclosures. The Bronx zoo also has staff stationed at some of the more popular exhibits, holding tiger enrichment demonstrations and public feedings of some animals, as well as a guided tour of the African animals at the zoo.

Museums have a few tricks up their sleeves, too. Some feature interactive programs like games, one particularly interesting example being the "Be the Dinosaur" traveling exhibit. I wrote about the exhibit previously and while us technical types might have some scientific quibbles I do think that it's a good vehicle to get people to understand that dinosaurs were once living, breathing, creatures. Shows featuring "live" dinosaurs and active labs open to public viewing are also good developments, the latter letting people see scientific work in progress rather than just the end result.

I also have to wonder if zoos and museums should revitalize two different ideas that seem to have fallen out of fashion. When I was young my parents would often take me to the Turtleback Zoo, the zoo selling an "elephant key" that was placed into a speakerbox and turned at different exhibits to explain something about the animals. It might seem plain but I thought it was great fun; I always wanted to be sure I had my elephant key when I went to the zoo. Likewise, zoos and museums used to produce special booklets that guided visitors through their exhibits and provided more detail about the exhibits and their history. (Here are some examples from the Philadelphia zoo [1908], the London zoological gardens [1875], the British Museum of Natural History [1906], the AMNH [1911], an exhibit on fossil elephants at the British Museum [1908], and the Harvard Museum of Natural History.) Museums in particular are filled with artifacts that have unusual histories that could easily be turned into short, compelling books about key exhibits.

I suppose I should not be complaining; zoos and museums are still extremely popular institutions that do carry out conservation projects and research, their importance to understanding nature extending far beyond the exhibit halls. Still, given the number of people who visit these places I think a more concentrated effort should be made to educate. Plenty of people visit and go "Oooh," and "Aaah," at the exhibits but how many leave with some new bit of knowledge or a better understanding of nature than when they arrived? We can't force people to learn but I think we need to stop thinking that small blurbs of text tacked on the wall or railing are the best we can do when it comes to public education.

[If you're interested in this subject there are plenty of books on the topic of the history of museums. I've read Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads, The Rarest of the Rare, To Have and To Hold, and The Earth on Show and recommend them to anyone interested in this topic.]

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...people walking up to an exhibit, commenting on how weird or wonderful it is, and walking off to the next curiosity

An observation of human nature which explains why wunderkammern and royal menageries preceded real museums and zoos by by several centuries. I sometimes think that emphasising the difference between the two categories might help those who are trying to advance public understanding of science, showing why modern collections are important in that they actually have a purpose beyond display and even elementary education, and therefore might deserve support and even - gasp - funding.

You are of course correct about the need for education, unfortunately I think the only way to really achieve this is subliminally (for example the cladistic layout you described (which I was similarly impressed with on my visit)). Interactive games, sign boards and touch screens are all going to fall flat in the face of awesome fossil mounts(!) or real live tigers(!). One way to do this may be through layout but perhaps also the design of enclosures could be better adjusted to represent habitat - most zoos feature identical enclosures for leopard lion, various tiger, snow leopards and clouded leopards (in the UK this = grass, wooden stuff to jump on, patch of nettles/foliage to hide in). How about murals on the wall representing their nations/habitat of origin, a choice of planting in/around the encloure to do the same - acacia for africa, bamboo for china etc etc - simplistic perhaps but it might work better than a board with an outline map of the world saying african lions = africa, siberian tigers = siberia).

Chris; Right. That point is made by E.O. Wilson in the introduction of The Rarest of the Rare, as well as throughout the book.

I particularly like it when museums bring the science out to the main floor, particularly paleo-labs that visitors can watch and ask questions about. The Bronx zoo also is explicit about it's conservation efforts, although this is more difficult to show than working on old bones.

Tai; That is the trouble, isn't it? Designers can bend over backwards to do neat stuff but it's not as impressive as the exhibits themselves. That's the way it should be (I can read at home), but I'm just wondering if there is another way to do things. Walls and walls of text seem to be the way in which museums tell their story or narrative; perhaps there is a more visual way to do it. Zoos could be laid out along a path as if you were really walking around the world, visiting different fauna. Museums could set up fossil halls to follow evolutionary narrative through time.

(The latter idea has been on my mind for a while, thinking of how it could be done. It would require a lot of floor space, but I think that something could be done where visitors could follow different evolutionary "paths" through the exhibits to see not only how organisms changed but also their place in ancient ecosystems at any one time.)

Like when I was last at the AMNH in the evolution of mammals exhibit, with all the texts, computer displays and films explaining how early syapsids were not reptiles and then seeing one guy call his son over to a Dimetrodon fossil saying "Hey, come here jr. and see the big lizard."

I remember one time I was at the AMNH with my dad and there was another dad with his son talking about seeing and pointing out "Brontosaurus" and "Tyrannosaurus" while what they're really pointing and seeing is Barosaurus defending her young from Allosaurus.

As one of those enthusiastic docents (Bristol Zoo,UK) I can add a few more misidentifications to the list: Look at those:Wasps! (honeybees), Anteaters! (tapirs), Zebra!(Okapi again)and of course Monkeys! (lemurs). I try to explain whre possible, without getting on peoples nerves, but educating the whole city one child at a time is taking longer than I thought...

Nature's Treasurehouse by John Thackray and Bob Press, a history of the NHM (BMNH to some) is very good.

If you want a much more technical discussion then Museums and the Shaping of Knowledge by Eilean Hooper-Greenhill is excellent, dealing with their development through wunderkammen, the Royal Society's collection and to the more modern ideas about public museums. Postmodernism does crop up quite a bit, but when discussing material cultureand the way people interact with objects depending on their cultural backgrounds it does actually work. (As soon as they try to involve maths you can throw the thing out though).

By Dave Godfrey (not verified) on 24 Jul 2008 #permalink

When I visited Masters of the Night (an exhibit about bats) at the Museum of the Rockies last fall, I observed one mother with her two children looking at a glass display of an animatronic bat hanging from a tree. They looked at it, and as they walked off, the mother said I didn't know bats got that big. Had she read the label, which I admit could have been better placed, she would have walked away from that display knowing that the animatronic bat was twice as large as that particular species really gets.

I particularly like it when museums bring the science out to the main floor, particularly paleo-labs that visitors can watch and ask questions about. The Bronx zoo also is explicit about it's conservation efforts, although this is more difficult to show than working on old bones.

Great post, and one that hits the nail on the head. I'm currently working at a museum, planning and to a lesser extent designing a new exhibit on human evolution, and am currently battling with exactly the problems you describe. While there are a few people who come to museums to actually get educated, most of our visitors come here to see cool stuff. And no, they don't read the accompanying texts if you don't lure them into doing so. Or if the texts are too long (basically, anything longer than 7-10 medium-sized sentences isn't going to be read by your avarage visitor). One of the thoughest problems of exhibit design is deciding what information to put in your texts, because you can't put it all in there. So, what do I want our visitors to take away from the exhibit? That's the big, tough question.

By Darwin's Minion (not verified) on 24 Jul 2008 #permalink

I remember being at the AMNH visiting the mammal exhibition (dinosaurs were still closed for renovation work), walking through the exhibit and wondering about the strange order of it (with ungulates somehow being the top mammals), but not really understanding it. Back at that time, cladistics was not something I had heard much about, but some time later, after I read about cladistics and found a mention to the AMNH exhibit, I suddenly had a kind of aha moment - and considered myself a bit stupid not to have realised before what the philosophy behind the exhibit was. So for me, it worked, if only with a time delay of a few years...

Does the AMNH still have the little fold-up handouts that show the fossil halls in overhead view, so you can actually see the cladogram layout? When I first saw the new fossil halls, I thought that the handouts did a better job of getting the overall point across than most of the kiosks.

My exhibit design experiences reiterate what you and others have said here: there always seem to be far more stories than space.

I agree with you that museums & zoos could (and should) address this with more "takeaway" items like audio (& video) guides and publications. Then again, I think it'd be great to see more "unofficial" guides to exhibits and displays. I know some schools & museums have experimented with tools to develop visitor-generated labels and multimedia. But, sadly, I don't think that anyone has bested the creationists in the field of alternative museum exhibit interpretation.