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.
Context 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.
This 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.