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What Makes Exhibits Great?

Discussion in 'General Zoo Discussion' started by jbnbsn99, 1 Nov 2016.

  1. jbnbsn99

    jbnbsn99 Well-Known Member

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    After the arguments on the "worst exhibits" thread, I thought I'd explore the opposite end of the spectrum: what makes an exhibit great. Here are some criteria that go into making great exhibits. Note: the terms exhibit and enclosure are not synonymous. An enclosure is simply anything that holds an animal. An exhibit is about the presentation.

    1. Animal welfare - the exhibit must meet all the animals' needs. This should go without saying. While a good exhibit may have the minimal needs for an animal, a truly great one will exceed expectations in this regard.
    2. Landscaping - A truly great exhibit needs to transport the visitor, even if for a moment, to another place - the wild. This is done through the landscaping. Does the exhibit accurately, or close to accurately, recreate the animals' natural habitat.
    3. Hide the humans - This is an extension of landscaping. This essentially is how well are the keeper/visitor elements hidden from view. Or conversely, how well are these incorporated into the exhibit.
    4. Animal-guest interaction - Is there a connection made between the guest and the animal. This doesn't necessarily mean that the guest physically interacts with the animal, it could mean that the guest creates a meaningful connection to the animal. The connection could be through feeding, keeper talks, seeing interesting behavior, etc.
    5. Storytelling - Humans love a good story. This should be incorporated into an exhibit. See this thread for more thoughts on that.
    6. Attention to detail - The more details that come out upon closer inspection mean that there's a deeper meaning to the exhibit. It also makes repeat visits all the more enjoyable if not everything can be seen in one go.
    7. Uniqueness - Does the exhibit have something that is unique. Is it a cookie-cutter exhibit that can be seen in other zoos? Something that is truly great isn't a repeat of something else.
    I'm interested to see what other people think makes an exhibit truly great.
     
  2. Zooplantman

    Zooplantman Well-Known Member

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    I think this is different from your #1
    A great exhibit should let the animals behave naturally so that visitors can see and appreciate what is special (even wonderful) about the species.
     
  3. jbnbsn99

    jbnbsn99 Well-Known Member

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    That's probably as important or more important than anything I put up there.
     
  4. tetrapod

    tetrapod Well-Known Member

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    A couple of pet hates that should be easy to rectify with good initial planning:

    Keeping animals in incorrect social grouping. Too regularly zoos will build an elephant/gorilla/mandrill/ zebra/macaw etc enclosure to house just a few individuals. Only too rarely will you see the 10+ individuals in an exhibit which is more like the correct grouping for these social spp. I'm sure it leads to future behavioural problems. I appreciate it might be difficult to accumulate/breed enough individuals to get to a good social grouping, but often the exhibit has not been built large enough to allow for future increases.

    Poor visitor sight-lines. How many times have you looked across the specially designed viewing bay to see other visitors from another side of the exhibit? Annoying and avoidable in most circumstances. Even strategically placed mounds or vegetation can sort out existing problems in exhibits.
     
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  5. dinosaur50

    dinosaur50 Well-Known Member

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    Yes I'm with you on it
     
  6. Coelacanth18

    Coelacanth18 Well-Known Member

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    JB, I think that those points are all very good, and also encapsulate the complexity of judging exhibits as there is bound to be overlap between the different categories. For example, good landscaping, in many ways, implies that there is also a good attention to detail, and having an enclosure that allows animals to behave naturally implies that it is a good exhibit in terms of animal welfare as well. However, a well-landscaped enclosure doesn't necessarily produce natural behavior, and an exhibit that produces natural behavior doesn't necessarily give an illusion of being in the wild.

    I also think that it demonstrates how we can still critique exhibits, but in a way that is fair and inclusive of all arguments. By looking at exhibits from different perspectives, we can separate whether or not the enclosure is adequate for its inhabitants from whether or not it is a good exhibit. For example, concrete pits may be adequate for bears, but they don't act as a good display of the animal, and tell a story more of subjugation than of mutual respect, as a more naturalistic and eye-level exhibit might do.
     
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  7. jbnbsn99

    jbnbsn99 Well-Known Member

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    The landscaping is like the set design for a theater production. Good set design goes a long way. I remember once going to see a production of Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro that had a bare bones set, and the, in my opinion, poor set design took me out of the moment.
     
  8. overread

    overread Well-Known Member

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    Few more thoughts:

    1) Photography - whilst not everyone is a photographer there's certainly a core of people who enjoy zoo photography. Build pens with this in mind and try to adapt the choice and distance to barriers as best to allow for easy photos without bars or the glare of glass (a simple shelter built over a glass viewing window removes a lot of reflection issues - but so too can using a different gage of wire and letting people closer to that barrier (even if the animal is somehow held back from that barrier by an unobtrusive interior barrier*).

    Well built enclosures that allow for easy photography are more likely to be interesting for viewers as well and remove some of the cage feeling. Furthermore good enclosures will encourage repeat visits (I'm willing to bet photographer enthusiasts are a noticeable percentage of annual ticket holders and regular visitors)

    *this might be a pit or waterway; it need not be fencing

    2) Avoid open pen designs. Many zoos have pens that are very open with almost no shelter nor hiding spots. This means if you go to see the lion or tiger or even some smaller animals there's a very good chance you will see them. In fact its very hard not to spot the animals unless they are in a closed off area.
    Whilst this is good on that front it does make many pens look very sparse and I think also highlights things like pacing routes far more so to the viewer. Pens that have a more natural feel but also have more hidden areas I think is important for animal health and visitor impressions of the enclosures.
    This might require an increase in interaction events - eg feeding times (or just treat times with small tide-bits of food) to entice the animals out on show for a while at a fixed point in the day to prevent some from hiding up the entire time (much as the animals might like too; the visitors still have to get their sights too in order to keep the income flowing in).

    3) Increased depth/access to information through the zoo experience. Many zoos have very simple information boards aimed at kids/families. This is good; but it means that any who show a deeper level of interest other than casual or who already have basic awareness and are potentially receptive to more information; are left without.
    I feel that this acts as a barrier toward people feeling more in connection and more aware of what their money is going toward (conservation) as well as to simple awareness and understanding of the animals they are viewing.
    I think zoos can make more use of information points; gift shop offerings; websites; even smart-phone scan icons - in order to provide people with an avenue into greater understanding. I think that is an ideal way for zoos to start encouraging more younger generations (and older ones too) into lines of work such as conservation and zoo keeper or other linked roles.

    Keeper talks are one method, but they are labour intensive and often can't cater to every visitor (esp at very busy sites where keepers might not have time to answer every question that might be asked of them). They also tend to favour certain "popular" species with other more niche species being often ignored from such programs.

    Access to good intermediate information coupled with potential higher level information I feel is a great way to connect with individuals within the visiting public; and also a way to allow a greater level of connection with many who might go on to become stronger and more regular contributors toward the zoo and its causes.

    Granted this last one is more about the periphery toward an enclosure than the enclosure itself; but the way I see it an enclosure and the animal is only one part of the zoo element. A great enclosure is only as great as the system that it operates within and is supported by.
     
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  9. gentle lemur

    gentle lemur Well-Known Member

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    Hang on a moment. I think that the cart is well in front of the horse. An exhibit needs much, much more than just presentation to be successful.
    I think we can assume that, in most cases, the purpose of the exhibit will be both conservation and education in some sense or other: but, depending on the species, it could hold a single animal, a single sex group or a breeding group. The species and the purpose must be clear for the exhibit to be fit for purpose and the educational opportunities that the exhibit will provide must be part of the purpose and the design from the earliest stages (these may be just 'storytelling' or they may be much more varied and flexible than that).
    Then the basic requirement of any exhibit must be safety and security for the animals, the zoo's staff and, above all, the public. Which are easy enough for most tortoise exhibits, obviously essential for carnivores (of course) and very difficult and expensive for elephants and orangs. Depending on the species, this will probably include off-show holding areas, isolation facilities, heating/cooling/ventilation & humidity control/water filtration facilities, feeding and drinking equipment (possibly including provision for enrichment). Safe and easy access for keepers and vets and their equipment (including tractors etc in large exhibits) is essential. Don't forget about a power supply, a water supply and efficient drainage.
    Then consider the site: remember that easy access for vehicles is essential for getting food to your elephants, for example, not to mention removing their waste and transporting animals. Consider the site's orientation relative to the position of the sun and the possibility of shade, the prevailing winds and the positioning of windbreaks. These link into the exhibit's environmental footprint; zoos have a responsibility both to be as green as is reasonably possible and to be seen to be so: in GB, a zoo must make provision for environmental education as a condition of its Zoo License. How sustainable are the construction materials and methods? How much solar gain is possible? Are solar power generation and/or passive solar heating feasible? Are other sustainable energy sources available, such as heat pumps or using waste as biofuels?
    Then there is the exhibit's place in the zoo to think about. Does it matter what visitors will see immediately before and after it? Will it be disturbed by external factors, such as a road or railway on the other side of the fence? Finally think about the neighbouring exhibits or features; Gerald Durrell made the point that if you house songbirds next to an owl, the owl will make them panic 'just by being an owl and staring'. On the other hand Heini Hediger built a children's playground next to the chimps at Zurich, so that the children could play on a smaller version of the chimps climbing frame and the chimps had something interesting to watch.
    Good zoo exhibits are hard to design because there are so many factors to take into account and compromises have to be made. Different designers at different zoos working with different species produce very different designs with different strengths and weaknesses :)
     
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  10. JVM

    JVM Well-Known Member

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    There's a lot of good points going on in this topic!

    The difference between what visitors want and what animals want is comparatively well-documented, but
    I think sometimes there can be a disconnect between what is good for zoo visitors and what might be good for staff and conservation, even today. A common example is the difference between positive enrichment and trying to encourage certain authentic behaviors while retaining how an animal behaves in the wild, or creating good viewing for visitors in an animal that lives in a tropical environment and needs lots of trees or lives in darkness. There are solutions to these problems, I'm just using them as examples of that disconnection.

    Storytelling is a factor I question the value of though - too many times have I been in an exhibit that sought to tell a good story, but had to skip signs due to crowds, the signs became corrupted by iPads, etc. or occasionally where a key species becomes unavailable and may be replaced by a species that does not fit the narrative, such as when Red River Hogs become housed in former Warthog exhibits, usually in 'Savannah' sections of a zoo. Everybody loves a good story, but to how many visitors to these stories truly reach? I am not against the concept of including stories, but I do hope zoos explore new options to deliver them.

    I am not so critical of exhibits according to an idealization of what an exhibit should strive to be, so much as by recognizing weaknesses. That's something I should fix, but I'm nor sure how many exhibits in my local zoos could be considered great by a national or international standard.
     
  11. jbnbsn99

    jbnbsn99 Well-Known Member

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    Remember, though, the term exhibit literally means the showing of the animals. I think a lot of Brits conflate exhibit and enclosure, as many British zoos don't actually do exhibitry as seen here in the US, and those that do (like London) do not pull it off well.
     
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  12. Arizona Docent

    Arizona Docent Moderator Staff Member

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    To me one test is that the landscaping (foliage) holds up well over time. Exhibits that are too small for the inhabitants eventually become barren. Sometimes this happens in a few months and sometimes a few years, but good exhibits still look good a decade or two later.

    Here are some I have seen that still look great after years and years of use:
    Phoenix Zoo - cheetah exhibit
    Arizona Sonora Desert Museum - mountain lion exhibit
    Houston Zoo - lion exhibit
     
  13. Batto

    Batto Well-Known Member

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    I don't think that there is any exhibit that fulfills this requirement 100%. You can meet many or even sometimes most (and especially the vital ones) needs, but some cannot be met due to various reasons and must at best be replaced with adequate substitutes.
     
  14. gentle lemur

    gentle lemur Well-Known Member

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    With respect, if the public can see an animal, it is being exhibited. Therefore the animal and the space that it is in constitute an exhibit. I would use the term enclosure for a single confined space, which might, in simple cases like a fish tank or a deer park, be a whole exhibit. Exhibits often contain several enclosures, plus associated labelling, theming etc. In my view an exhibit is like an iceberg, you should look very carefully at the part that you can see - but the part you can't see is even more important, as I was trying to stress in my previous post.
    No zoo in any country can do "exhibitry" because the word does not exist (at least in the OED).
     
  15. Tim May

    Tim May Well-Known Member Premium Member

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    I don’t understand this comment.

    Any animal enclosure that provides public viewing is, by definition, an exhibit.

    (Obviously, ‘behind-the-scenes’ animal accommodation, not intended to be seen by zoo visitors, cannot be called an exhibit but if the public can see the enclosure then it is an exhibit.)
     
  16. jbnbsn99

    jbnbsn99 Well-Known Member

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    Exhibitry is a well-established word, if even a neologism, here in the US (at least in zoos) referring to the stylings of how things are exhibited.
     
  17. jbnbsn99

    jbnbsn99 Well-Known Member

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    Let me preface this comment by saying I know nothing of this particular enclosure, just what the photo shows. To me, something like this is not an exhibit. It is an enclosure. There's no deign element. There's nothing that tries to recreate an environment.

    [​IMG]

    Also, to be fair, it is extremely difficult to gauge the quality of British exhibits/enclosures from ZooChat photos. The vast majority of photos from UK zoos are of the animals and not of the exhibits. This probably speaks as much as anything to the differing tastes between American and British aesthetics.
    This is an American enclosure. By rights, I cannot call it an exhibit. It's roughly 100 acres in size and by all accounts meets every animal need, but because there are no human elements, I don't feel like it can qualify as a legitimate zoo exhibit. It's simply a fenced in paddock.

    [​IMG]
     
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  18. Tim May

    Tim May Well-Known Member Premium Member

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    The first photograph in your post is an enclosure that displays forest buffalo; hence, as far as I’m concerned, it is a forest buffalo exhibit. (This is consistent with your definition in an earlier post “the term exhibit literally means the showing of the animals”.)

    This could easily become a discussion on semantics…….
     
  19. TeaLovingDave

    TeaLovingDave Moderator Staff Member

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    One point that may be worth making is that, when discussing the first photograph you said that one reason it is not an "exhibit" is that
    However, the second photograph - which you dismiss as a mere enclosure because there are no human elements - arguably does a very good job of replicating the natural environment in which one would find the species in question; that is to say, a large area of grassland interspersed with trees. As such I reckon that by your own logic the second photograph *does* depict an exhibit for the species in question.
     
  20. Macaw16

    Macaw16 Well-Known Member

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    To me a good 'exhibit' is one which allows the animal(s) to live a pleasant life, preferably a naturalistic one. To be a great one however, it should allow the visitor to have a good enough chance of seeing the animal, whilst offering some form of educational material, an enriching time for the animal and visitor alike and being fairly naturalistic. It should be designed for the animal's and necessary staff's needs before that of the visitors. One point I will make isn't much of an excellent one, but it is where my experience lies. Hamsters. I keep two, both have good enclosures (they are cages, which carries a negative implication, but there should be no reason for that) based on what they contain, yet I would rate one as better, simply due to the servicing of it. It has a small door compared to a large door in the other one, meaning it is more difficult to catch the hamster out of when cleaning is required. As this hamster is by no means tame, the size of the door can add stress to the hamsters life when it comes to catching him. A relatively tame and minor example I know, but if scaled up to zoo level, it shows just how difficult it is for somebody without intimate knowledge to truly judge an exhibit. By appearance the hamster's cage appears alright, but unless you have worked with the animal and its exhibit, can you really say whether it is a great exhibit?*


    On what is an exhibit. the Collins English Dictionary gives this definition;

    "1. to display (something) to the public for interest or instruction"
    Simply an enclosure which displays an animal is an exhibit. Be it a small box with nothing but a water dish, a branch and a monkey in it, or an exhibit (attempting) to recreate the Amazon rainforest which cost millions of dollars containing a monkey and a lot more in it (how much of it is superfluous I won't comment).


    A great deal should be taken into consideration when an exhibit is being designed for a public setting, be it its neighbours, the local weather, the animals requirements, the keepers requirements, et cetera.


    *Just to note, the hamster doesn't suffer and his cage is adequate for what he needs.
     
    Last edited: 3 Nov 2016