Zoological Gardens and Curiosity Cabinets

Ebony langur

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 Given that these were set up over a decade ago a few are broken and others are out of date, and usually the only people I see using them are children who repeatedly slam on the center button wondering if it’s a video game.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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