Zoo exhibits for the consumer- visitor oriented exhibits

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Zoo exhibits for the consumer- visitor oriented exhibits
Dr Sue Dale Tunnicliffe, Formerly Head of Education Zoological Society of London, now Homerton College Cambridge CB2 2PH, England
Margaret Williams formerly Head of Education Whipsnade Wild Animal Park, Dunstable, England
Paper presented at the American Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) Annual Conference, Hawaii, September 1996

Zoos have a mission which is predominantly concerned with conservation of endangered species and in educating the public about conservation (IUDZG & IUCN/SCC 1993). Whilst the content of a few conversations generated by families or school groups reveal an awareness that some animals are relatively rare, as is shown in the following conversation, it is rare.






It’s like a little lion

Yes Golden lion Tamarin there are not a lot of those about

A verbalisation of a deeper understanding of conservation and the role of zoos is most unusual and the following exchange was unique amongst 3,500 recorded exchanges.


He’s scuttled back . Hello!


He’s a toucan he’s making a noise.




I didn’t know toucans were still alive

Oh! Yes!

Everyone says they’re not alive don’t they?


Dodos aren’t, toucans are




Dodos aren’t- ‘Dead as a dodo’


If a zoo put a dodo in captivity they would be alive


They’d be able to keep it live


And there’d be dodos in the world


But there aren’t any


There aren’t any more

It encapsulates the mission of zoos.

In the general theory of exhibits, zoos have live animals whereas cultural museums predominantly display man made artefacts and Natural History museums show preserved animal specimens - museums animals. Spicer (1994) suggests that art museums have the problem of striking the balance between accessibility to their exhibits for the visitors and scholarship about the exhibits. Zoos have the same problem. On the one hand they are working towards preservation of endangered species (di Castri 1996) if not conservation, yet an analysis of conversational content of families and school groups in the USA and England showed that conservation was hardly ever a topic of conversation amongst these large group of zoo visitors (Tunnicliffe 1994a: 1995). On the other hand they aspire to educate their visitors. Education however, is an umbrella word which encompasses the declarative providing of information in a didactic style through to invitational labelling and strategies through interpretation and physically interactive artefacts to help visitors construct their own understanding about the animals from the knowledge tha they bring with them on their visit. Education should be about means of leading visitors into interactive learning. Our understanding of the psychological processes involved in this is still in its infancy but learning about animals in a zoo is different from learning in a classroom. Zoos traditionally focus on the cognitive aspects of learning but as Hayes (1996) points out the dimensions of self -efficacy and social identity are key because they ‘tap into personal and motivational domains’. Self -efficacy beliefs are concerned with how competent people feel themselves to be and social identity concerns an individual’s sense of self - the me, my group and as hays comments, social identity is about ‘us-and-them’. In the case of zoos it is management - the producer, and the visitors, the consumer- which is ‘us’? Which is ‘them’?
Visitors vary in their rationale for going to zoos but for families it is predominantly for a leisure visit with learning overtones ( Rosenfeld 1980) and the social aspects of the visit are important (Cheek 1971) whereas for schools there would be expected to be a curriculum justification for the visit (Tunnicliffe 1994b) although transcripts of school visits show that little science, either in terms of the process and content above tha of families is not present. Families and elementary school groups come to zoos to look at animals and label them , allocating them to categories with which they are already familiar. They view the animals in isolation, they do not compare one with the other.They do not discuss the diet or the natural habitat and notice the salient features and behaviours (Tunnicliffe 1995).Most conversations ignore conservation issues and focus on labelling.
Mother: Oh look it’s a goat!

Grandma Oh yes. Look! Danny a goat.

Mother: It must be a goat because it has hair, hooves and horns.
The animal in question was an Arabian Oryx and the enclosure was well labelled with the name and conservation information. The mother recognised goat features that she knew and allocated the animal to this familiar category.
Similarly a boy in the USA saw a Baboon and identified its reddish grey fur as that of a squirrel, with which he was familiar from his everyday life. He therefore drew the attention of his friends and the adult accompanying them on this school visit by the remark.

‘Look squirrel!’.

The adult said she wasn’t so sure and went to look at the label, coming back to say the animal was not a squirrel but a baboon. The boy insisted that the animal as a squirrel, the salient feature he observed matched his memory of the coat of a squirrel, he had categorised the animal to his satisfaction. This is not stupid, as someone at the zoo concerned said, but the reality of the understanding of the majority of our visitors. We, as the producers of the product, the zoo facility, need to know what our visitors talk about and use this as the baseline for exhibit design, interpretation and educational programmes. The starting point is collecting and analysing the conversational content of the different segments of visitor.

Analysing the content of the conversations
Conversations were recorded from groups of visitors at different exhibits. The permission of the teacher-in-charge of the party in the case of school groups and that of the adults in a sample of families was obtained. The recordings were transcribed and the contents coded according to categories designed specifically for this project.
A ‘unit of conversation’ was defined as the group conversation or exchanges from when any individual in the group begins talking about the exhibit to when conversation ceases. These two instants may not correspond to when the group begin to observe the animal exhibit or to when they leave. The following transcript is an example of a conversational unit.

Location: Whipsnade Wild Animal Park -Discovery Centre

Dwarf Mongeese

Girl: “Mongeese have nice little pink noses”

Girl 2: ”Which one is it?”

Girl 1: “Those noses!”

Boy 1: “ We are mammals”

Girl 1: “You know Mr Scotchford, Lynn?”

Girl 2: “ Yeah”

Girl 2: “ Well, he said that we are mammals!”

Girl 2: “Well, we are!”

Girl 1: “ Good job we are not animals!”

Girl 2: “Look they sleep on top of the rock!”

Girl 1: “ Where are they?”

Girl 2: “Oh look! They’re coming towards us!”
The different topics referred to in each individual conversational exchange were counted. Subsequently topics were grouped into affinity groups which were given a super-ordinate name. For example, comments about sense organs and the head were coded individually and also grouped within a super-ordinate category ‘comments about the front end’. In turn ‘front end comments’ were grouped within the next super-ordinate category ‘body parts’; which in turn belonged to a larger category of ‘direct animal observations’. This large category belonged in turn to a category ‘comments at the exhibit’ and the whole technique is based on that of systemmic networks.(Tunnicliffe 1994a: 1995:14-21).
The major categories of the network were, ‘management and social comments’ e.g ‘Move on!’, ‘Yes’; ‘Ostensive comments’ such as ‘Look!’; ‘Where is it’; ‘interpretative comments’ - for example about welfare issues, comments such as, ‘I would have that as a pet!’, and affective attitudes such as ‘I like that!’ ‘Ugh’; ‘Other exhibit comments’ which refer to labels, foliage, feeding vessels and rocks; animal focused with three subcategories of ‘body parts’, ‘behaviour’, and ‘naming’ comments; ‘environmental comments’ which refer to the natural habitat, endangered status and conservation. Various other descriptive demographic data, such as about the adult accompanying the group, were also recorded in the database.


Location: Whipsnade Wild Animal Park -Discovery Centre

Dwarf Mongeese

56 29 /50 / 51 45

Girl : “Mongeese / have nice /little /pink / noses”


Girl 2: “Which one is it?”


Girl 1: “Those noses!”

12/ 58

Boy 1: “ We are / mammals”


Girl 1: “You know Mr Scotchford Lynn?”


Girl 2: “ Yeah!”

3 7 / 58

Girl 2: “Well, /he said that we are / mammals!”

3 / 11

Girl 2: “Well, /we are!”

3 / 64-

Girl : “Good job we are not animals!”

3 / 40 / 23

Girl 2: “Look /they sleep /on top /of the rock!”


Girl 1: “ Where are they?”

3 / 20 / 35

Girl 2: “Oh look! /they’re /coming towards us”

This approach to recording the content of exchanges at the animal exhibits revealed patterns in the range of topics about which the visitors commented at least once whilst they were talking at an animal exhibit. The data for the conversational content of elementary school groups and family groups are shown in Table 1.
The datawere collected for schools in 1992 and for families in 1996. The exhibits in the discovery centre were largely unchanged.
The similarity in this data is surprising because the school groups came for curriculum oppresses. However the following points are important to note:
• the significantly higher number of comments of primary school groups about the environment (including conservation) reflects the zoological qualification of the several infant teachers the content of the conversations of their pupils, with or without an adult, were analysed;

• the significantly higher number of affective and emotive attitudes found amongst the school groups reflects the pattern found in other data collected from school and family in zoo;

• the significantly higher number of exhibit access comments amongst school groups is surprising but is likely to have occurred because a high proportion of the family visitors appeared to be repeat visitors and knew where to look for the animals.
Overall the family groups and the elementary schools generated a similar content of conversation, one which was based on their previous knowledge and experience and triggered by superficial observation of the animals.

School groups and family groups commented about similar topics. Their comments were of an everyday nature, they did not involve the science process. Visitors were not using the common names or scientific names of animals, nor did they relate one member of a category such as family to another. These visitors compared animals rarely and when they did so it was with a recalled image, not an animal they had seen elsewhere in the Park. Visitors noticed salient features but nothing else. They interpreted behaviours which they witnessed in largely human terms. The social identity of visitors as just that, visitors looking at someone else’s ‘things’ is very apparent, the visitors, the everyday people, looked at the possessions of the experts, the zoo, and interpreted them in their familiar everyday terms. This referral back to the familiar image from everyday life reveals feelings of low competence, a non-positive self-efficacy.
What can zoos do to change this ‘them and us’ situation if they choose to do so? How can visitors be led into meaningful interactions with the animal exhibits and start construction their knowledgeand understanding about the animals and entry into the stories of the zoo rather than rely on their own ones? (Spicer 1994) , discussing special art exhibitions, suggest that the museum should focus the visitor on those issues that are open to verification or resolution by the visitors. In terms of live animals this means focusing the visitor on aspects of the animal, involving the visitors in making observations, judgements.
Involvement can be achieved through three levels of interactions that are increasingly complex in the demands made by the interaction on thevisitors. The levels are:
• LEVEL 1 physical actions by the visitor- looking through fixed telescopes, lifting flaps, using observations kits- and using the ‘fiddle factor’ energy of chidlren;
• LEVEL 2 observations with some provided cues that engender psychological action -such as answering a questions posed by labels or hand held cards or someone verbal question;
• LEVEL 3 observations and psyschological involvement and mental processing- working out something about the animal from data provided at the exhibit.
One method we used at the Zoological society of London to enhance and focus observations was to develop animal observations kits through whose use the visitors focused on zoologically pertinent features of the animals. Visitors made observations (level 1) or made observations that helped answer questions (level2). Using such kits increases the dwell time at exhibits.
The animal observations kit facilitates interactive encounters with the animals and uses that ‘fiddle factor’ tendency of children to learn as they touch, twisit and pull items. The collection of easily made items can be carried around along on the visits and the physical use of the items help the user focus on the animals and answer a set of questions. This approach is geared to pre-schoolers and the early years of schooling starting at about two and a half. Children, and their accompanying adults, will observe the colour, pattern, texture of covering, shape and size of animals, as well as developing their knowledge of animal kinds and associated language skills
The individual items need a container which is easy to carry around the zoo. A simple shopping bag works well or a small school bag. Some schools design and make their own bags/ containers as part of their design technology assignment. The kits consist of a cardboard tube, sets of cards for colours and patterns of animal body coverings, items to feel, toy animals to match to authentic specimens. The cardboard Observerscope, or ZOO TUBE, which provides a frame through which the children can view parts of the exhibit and the animal. The set of colour cards are used to recognise and identitify colours in animals. The child matches a card to a similar colour on an animal’s body covering. Similarly the set of pattern cards is used to match a pattern on the card to that on an animal or vice versa. The black/white interface of the Giant Panda or Penguin species, the stripes of a zebra or zebra fish for example. Several toy animals including a farm animal and a zoo animal and finally a ‘touch feel and talk’ item. This is a key aspect of this work and enables children to appreciate, experience and understand the texture of the body covering of animals in an interactive manner without directly touching those animals with which human beings do not normally touch and helps foster the respect for other living things that is inherent with zoo missions. One of the important things which children learn is that about relative sizes. Choose a few zoo animals from the toy collection so that the children can first of all find the animal and match it. Accompanying adults can ask the children why they think the real animals is the same as the toy open and listen to what they have noticed. Then they can ask the children a few questions so that they have practice in using the vocabulary’, ‘Bigger then ‘, ‘Smaller than..’ ,’Like ...’.
Interactive activities using the sense of touch are especially useful if you know the children will be able to touch the farm animals or for example snakes at a Meet the Animal Session. A selection of items which may feel similar to animals is needed. Items which are hard and soft, smooth or rough, warm and cold, see if the children can use the appropriate word for the item and then match the feel to the. Sticking the items on cards to make ‘Feely cards’ are a successful way of doing this. Try collecting cotton wool or a piece of sheepskin, piece of sandpaper, piece of wood or plastic for hard, piece of foil for cold and smooth, a piece of silk, a feather.

All kits contain written cue cards for the adults. These cards have starter questions to ask the children and some suggestions for animals which have the colour or pattern on their body coverings. The Whipsnade kits contain an insect eye which is a plastic prism which provide a first hand experience of what an insect may view through its compound eye.

Level 3 interactions can be elicited through providing information about the animal at theexhibit and then inviting the visitors to use that information to work something out about the exhibit at the time they are viewing. Lions are notoriously inactive and a disappointment to the visitors. However, if the daily diary of the typical lion in the zoo were displayed on a pie chart by the exhibit and visitors invited to identify the activity on which the animal were involved at the time of viewing.
Labels of some form are key to visitor intreaction although the traditional label by the enclosure is not the only form that can be used. Labels by the enclosure are provided by zoos and they need to be relevant, readable and invitational. Visitors want to know the obvious and how the animal relates to those of their experience. They also want to know ‘people’ or ‘gossip’ information about the animal to start with. once they have acquired a familiarity in their terms with the animal (Tunnicliffe 1993:1994c) they are more likely to accept the ‘zoo information. Labels can be written in the three layered form to cater for different categories of visitors - the name in English for the children and most families, the name and invitational question which leads into an observational dialogue for the visitors and the science label, like many present zoo labels are which ‘lecture’ to the visitors and is quite acceptable and informative to the enthusiasts who visits the zoos.
Person to person is the most effective means of communication of information (Osborne and Tunnicliffe 1996) and this is provided in zoos through the keepers, docents or the zoo personnel who provide the information which the visitor requests or trigger questions by a cue comment. It is important to remember that visitors - visitors talk is the other end of the spectrum of person to person information giving and receiving. It is crucial to train docents and keepers to provide information which expand the existing knowledge bas of the visitors, helping them construct knowledge and understanding and not to lecture, indulging in telling what they know, consumer not produceruoriented. Audio information at exhibits is an alternative means of delivering a short piece of first or second level information and could increase the dwell time at exhibits for visitors who have a small repertoire of existing knowledge with which to interpret the animal.
Whipsnade has no true immersions exhibits although it has a woodland walk and the Rainforest exhibit in the Discovery Centre is warm and humid with rain forest nsounds. From observations made in these and similar exhibits in other zoos, such as walk through aviaries, the content of conversations appears to be similar. Further research needs to be carried out to systematically study whether or not this is so and whether the dwell time for visitors at individual animals or in an immersion exhibit as a whole is greater than at similar animals or sized exhibits of a non-immersion nature.
Little work has been carried out on different means of interpretation at animal exhibits and their effect on the content of the conversations of visitors. Until zoos embark on research in visitors studies and educational learning in zoos rather as well pure biological research in conservation biology the ‘them and us’ feeling and the resultant everyday convserations of the majority of visitors is likely to persist.
Cheek, N. H. (1971). On The Socoiology of Leisure Places: The Zoological Park. Annual Meeting American Socilogical Association, Sociology for Leisure Seminar, Denver, Colarado, paper presented.
di Castri, F. (1996). Biodiversity. World Science Report 1996. Paris, UNESCO. 242-268.
Hayes, N. (1996). Interactive learning- the demands of the task. First Science Centre World Congress, Vantuaa, Finland, Paper presented.
IUDZG and IUCN/SSC (1993). The World Zoo Conservation Strategy: The Role of Zoos and Aquaria of the World in Global;Conservation. The World Zoo Organisation and the Captive Breeding Specialist Group of IUCN/SSC.
Osborne, J. and Tunnicliffe S. D. (1996). An evaluation of 5 exhibits. London Transport Museum. King’s College, London.
Spicer, J. (1994). The Exhibition: Leacture or conversation? Curator 37(3): 184-197.
Rosenfeld, S. (1980). Informal Learning in Zoos: Naturalistic studies on Family groups. Unpublished doctoral dissertation University of California, Berkeley.
Tunnicliffe, S. D. (1993 ). Do Labels Tell Visitors What They Want to Know?Alternative Anmal Categorisations. in Annual proceedings of AAZPA, Omaha, Nebraska, AAZPA: 362-365.
Tunnicliffe, S. D. (1994 a). Education: A partnership between zoo and visitors-is it equal? AZA Annual Proceedings, Atlanta, GA., AZA.pp 187-193

Tunnicliffe, S. D. (1994 b). A New Categorisation of Labels in Zoos. AZA Annual Proceedings, Atlanta, GA., AZA.pp 194-197

Tunnicliffe, S.D. (1995) Talking about Animals :Studies of young children visiting zoos , a natural history museum and a farm. Unpublished PhD thesis King’s College, London

Comparison of content of conversations generated by primary school and family groups at live animal exhibits at Whipsnade Wild Animal Park


Whipsnade families n = 194

no %

Whipsnade schools


no %



Phi 2

Management/ Social






Exhibit access






p <0.025


Other exhibit comments






p <0.005


Body parts






p <0.005














Affective attitudes






p <0.005


emotive attitudes




















knowledge source












p< 0.025


*The value of Phi2 remains constant, even if the sample size is increased one hundred fold.

AZA 96 Tunnicliffe and Williams

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