Zoo Exhibits in Three Acts

Forgive me. This post will not wrap up cleanly. There will be no final conclusion. No simple 5 step process. This post is simply my musings on design philosophy in zoos. So indulge me. But just don’t expect a Hollywood ending.

Last night, I took my husband begrudgingly to the movies to watch “Black Swan”–which he was unwilling to see until one of his buddies had seen it and confirmed that it was, in fact, worthy of a watch. To me, it was breathtaking. Mesmerizing. Exhilarating. But this is not a website on film review, so I’ll leave it at that. But, what is relevant is the fact that, a day later, I am still thinking about it. Analyzing what made it appeal to me so much. Obsessed with how it attached itself around my subconscious, seeping into my most mundane daily thoughts. How did it achieve this? What made it so special to me?

The matter is important in the context of zoo design for one simple reason: this level of affect is the goal of zoo exhibits. We are in the business of creating experiences and memories that so tightly hang in your mind that you have no choice but to not only think about the plight of wildlife or the environment, but take action to protect it. That’s the real goal, isn’t it? Name the last exhibit that did this to you. Go ahead. Try.

To say that exhibits rarely achieve this is an understatement. So, on my morning walk through the woods with the dog (and I’ll amend that for today’s walk to ‘on my snowy morning walk’), I continued to obsess. And I think I figured it out.

Think about any story that grabbed you—a film, a book, a campfire tale. Most were told in the familiar and customary three act structure. If you haven’t been to literature class in twenty or so years, here’s the Cliff’s Notes version: a story is divided into three simple parts—the Setup, the Confrontation, the Resolution. A three act structure allows the listener (or viewer) to first empathize or relate to the main character, understand (and care about) the basic problem the story is addressing, then finally celebrate the resolution of said problem. Practically all major movies follow this structure, and most books do as well. It is followed because it works. It’s as simple as that.
Now, just because a film or book follows this format, doesn’t mean the story or the execution won’t fall flat, absolutely ruining an otherwise fine idea. There must be more. There must be something that draws you in. You must first empathize with the character (or animal, in our case). You have to relate to him or her. In the first act, we must see a little bit of ourselves in the subject—our failures, our faults, our dreams, our aspirations—or we’ll just not care.

Empathy can carry us only so far, and as we move through the action, or confrontation, something else needs to take hold. We already care about the character, now what makes us hold on? In “Black Swan”, the hook was a purely visceral, physical reaction. This movie was R rated, so the director expertly leveraged sex, drugs, and pain (which I’ve never seen, nor will I, I’m guessing, ever see in a zoo setting!), but combined with the familiar Swan Lake melodies and simple beauty of dance, the body was fully engaged.

This movie was about evoking a physical reaction, every bit as much as it was about the emotional. And nothing I’ve ever seen brought the two together as well as during the resolution of the film. Built into a tidal wave of chaotic flurry, where every frame was an expertly composed visual feast, and moment after moment brought tension and exhilaration to its absolute apex, then, just as we believe we can take no more, the film concluded. Right there. Right at the peak. Leaving you breathless, body abuzz in euphoria. I left the theater alight. Grinning from ear to ear despite the desperately tragic film I’d just experienced. And I’m still thinking about it. Still wondering how we achieve this kind of attachment to zoo exhibits. How we achieve this moment of perfection.

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