These 3 key design elements will turn a zoo into a conservation experience
Not every zoo is the same. We have come a long way from the beginnings of European zoo buildings in the 13th century until today’s behavioural enrichment concepts. Heini Hediger, who is still regarded as the founder of modern Zoological thinking, set out the 4 main tasks of a modern Zoo: Education, Research, Leisure and Conservation. In particular, the Ex-situ and In-situ conservation work being done, more or less exclusively by zoos, is one of the strongest arguments we have to emphasise for the importance of our existance. Despite these important tasks, there are still negative associations of zoos. There are people who perceive zoos to be institutions whose only target is to incarcerate animals and put them on exhibit for fun and profit. This part of the public are pro-active and have quite a strong lobby as well as a loud voice. So what is our statement? Are we communicating the central role of conservation enough? Is conservation built into our zoo DNA? Into our strategic development plan? Into our design and communication so that our guests can understand, what we are doing? Possibly, but probably not enough. So by what means can we communicate conservation or even make conservation experiencable? There are three key design elements:
Invite the visitors to go on a journey – to physically “go there”. Immerse them into the landscape and engage with them. This kind of “osmotic learning” allows the visitors to relax and arrive, first of all. It is only when they are emotionally ready, we may be able to reach them with some sort of message, quite often a simple message about beauty or uniqueness.
Architecture creates a context and allows us to be more precise about where we are telling this particular part of a story. Two good examples are the fish breeding house in Munich Zoo or a simple school house in the Chester Zoo Islands project. From my point of view, architecture is a means to an end, not in the foreground. Architecture in the form of a zoological veterinary clinic allows staff to interact and engage with visitors, allows them a transparent glimpse into some of the actual work going on that usually happens behind the scenes. This type of transparency and communication is, in my mind, essential for the acceptancy and support of our zoos in the future. Architecture can also take on the roll of being a “light house” for a certain topic, and not just simply to impress. Here, I would like to mention the example of a project we are developing in the Berlin Zoo. We are building a tower and fill it with interactive installation drawing attention to the IUCN and the animals on its list.
I am a big fan of the Seafood Watch project, created by the Monteray Bay Aquarium team. It is a programme which helps consumers and businesses choose seafood that’s fished or farmed in ways that support a healthy ocean, now and for future generations. Or the sustainable palm oil challenge by Chester Zoo which led to Chester being the first and only sustainable palm oil City. Stocking sustainable products, such as in the retail area in the Zurich zoo, as well as using local products in the restaurants is also a very close and practical way to reach out to our visitors by best practice. 1:1 communication through keeper talks or staff tours is certainly one of the best way to positively influence a visitors experience and to translate some important core messages personally.The communication can also entail an interactive quiz, analog or digital, which can not only be fun but also informative.
By creating authentic and detailed settings, zoos enable the visitor to simply take in the feel of the place and learn some stories intuitively and even have direct encounters with the animal. Here is the moment of maximum emotional engagement and if we change the perspective that a visitor may be used to, we can awaken fascination. Lastly, social media allows our visitors to immediately participate or actually act for one of the conservation projects. We should not forget that the tonality within these media can be a lot more proximate and even full of humor in order to allow for easier reach, because, in the end if we deliver positive messages, we can empower our visitors and they will ultimately become ambassadors, not visitors.