Balancing Education and Entertainment in Zoo Design

By Cray Shellenbarger

Zoo design is as difficult a task as any.  We attempt to set criteria based upon needs of animals, visitors, zoo staff and zoo administrators.  One of the biggest issues I see is the balance between education and entertainment.  Zoos generally advertise themselves as promoting education and conservation, but as designers we cannot forget that a large number of attendees come to be entertained.   It is the job of the design team to educate the public about conservation and the individual animals in a variety of creative ways.  Oftentimes, it is better to be subtle with our techniques so that patrons do not feel that they are being bombarded with information.   I believe that by creating more immersive, interactive and technologically advanced exhibits we can achieve the goal of educating the public, and perhaps pick up a few added benefits along the way.

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By creating an immersive, realistic environment for both the animal and the guests, the exhibit is passively conveying information.  By incorporating lifelike materials with ambient sounds and water as appropriate, the guest is gaining an understanding of the animal’s habitat and ultimately its place in the ecosystem.  The guest can be provided a few visual cues to make points, instead of being forced to read text.  These exciting elements may have a better chance of sticking with the guest compared to text that is often passed by.  Materiality is also very important in immersive environments.  By incorporating real rock, landscape or sand as opposed to murals or other less genuine methods, the guest can better understand the environment.  Obvious barriers can also inhibit the engagement between animals and guests.  Hiding these within landscape can add to the sense of immersion and, ultimately, optimize the educational experience.

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Creating an immersive exhibit will provide the animal with a more natural environment.  Along with naturally appropriate enrichment techniques, we can begin to correctly portray the animal’s native behavior.  Enrichment ideas and any necessary training should avoid anthropomorphizing of animals as much as possible.  Many people associate animal’s behaviors with human behaviors and emotions when these, depending on the animal may be very different.

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Along the same lines as immersive exhibits, I think it is of great importance to include as many interactives as possible.  Humans learn by doing.  If we can provide some kind of activity that indirectly exposes the user to information about animals or conservation it will be successful.  These can range from touch experiences to puzzle type exhibits.  I think that zoos see the importance in these now,  but by adding more, we can really enrich the educational and entertainment experience simultaneously.  A recent example is a high-tech exhibit touch screen wall at the Pittsburgh Zoo.

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The last and arguably most important aspect is our fast growing mobile technology.  I think it is imperative that we begin to capitalize on the interconnectivity of nearly every zoo guest.  It is rare to see a visitor without a smart phone or tablet.  Some theme parks have already begun to incorporate applications that can be loaded onto these devices to engage and interact with the guest.  One example is the application that Sea World Orlando launched for its Turtle Trek attraction.  This interactive game allows users to portray the characters and create a personalized experience.

This idea can be utilized from more than one angle.  Ads and sponsorship could be incorporated to help cover the initial cost of launching as well as produce continued revenue generation over time.  The application could also help motivate guests to explore exhibits outside of the big attractors.  This would have an effect on guest flow, but could help balance the people per minute at any one exhibit.  Educational elements of this kind should be incorporated as well.  There are countless ideas that could be incorporated that could help balance education and entertainment while generating additional revenue for the zoo.

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By building immersive, interactive, and technologically advanced exhibits, we can further engage the guest.  This engagement comes with the added benefit of conveying more knowledge while creating a more entertaining experience and generating revenue.  The emerging technology is a powerful tool that we should use to our advantage.  The Zoo is constantly advancing, both from a guest and business perspective.  The zoos of today are very different from 60 years ago, and they will no doubt be vastly different 60 years from now.

Cray Shellenbarger is from central Illinois and attended Southern Illinois University earning both Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Architecture.  His thesis focused on human perception of space, specifically in regards to religious architecture.  In his short time at PGAV, Cray has worked on a variety of projects at PGAV including several animal habitats.  cray.shellenbarger@pgav.com

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