This spring, Paula Birnbaum’s Museum Studies class had the opportunity to join the Museum Studies graduate program on a site visit to see displays of live flora and fauna at the San Francisco Zoo. Some of the issues we discussed included exhibition strategies, population management, and how to better educate the public about environmental stewardship. We were very fortunate to be able to see these topics in action.
Led by Museum Studies graduate student James Peth, who has a background in zoology, our group got a unique, insider’s look at the different processes and decisions that go into live exhibits.
We were able to observe the different enclosure methods by comparing the exhibits of various animals. The lemur exhibit featured trees and intricate jungle-gym style rope structures surrounded by running water and a waist high fence designed to keep people out more than lemurs in. The big cat exhibits all had a huge pit between the main exhibit and the lightly electrified fence. The Penguins were also surrounded by water, with a structure in the middle, which had entrances for the penguins to go inside, away from visitors’ eyes.
We also compared older exhibits –such as the traditional polar bear enclosure that was first built in the 1930s during the Works Progress Administration (WPA)—to the newer ones, such as the Otter-River of the 1990s, with its deep pools, cascading waterfalls and climbing rocks. Although both methods are equally appropriate for the animals for whom they were built, the newer exhibits focus more on visitor experience. Older exhibits were designed based on what biologists knew the animals needed; however, visitors to the zoo often do not have these same insights into animal health. We learned that because the older exhibits do not resemble viewers’ assumptions about the animals’ assumed natural habitat, visitors often believe the animals are “unhappy.” In order to accommodate these interpretations, the San Francisco zoo began designing exhibits based on visitor expectations instead of zoological evidence by creating fake environments to improve aesthetics.
Like museums, zoos are concerned with improving methods of visitor education and experience. Their goals of raising awareness about endangered species and conservation closely mirrors today’s museums’ commitment to go beyond entertainment by offering meaningful visitor experience. We are very lucky to have had this opportunity, and are grateful to the Museum Studies Graduate program and James Peth for giving us this unique insight into the San Francisco Zoo.