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Trends in Exhibition:

Landscape or habitat immersion design, the idea of showing animals in the context of nature rather than in the context of architecture, has gained wide acceptance around the world. Nevertheless, this is a thirty-year old idea and many newer design trends have become available to improve animal well-being and visitor enjoyment in zoos.


Immersion Design

Chimpanzees in their immersion exhibit.


Detroit Zoo chimpanzee immersion exhibit. Photo: M. Davidson

The concept of immersion design is to immerse animals and guests in the same re-created theme area, habitat or landscape. Animals and visitors are separated by hidden barriers. In its purest sense, landscape immersion design takes the position "nature is the best model". This concept has gradually gained world-wide acceptance and is often considered "best practice".

"The landscape immersion approach arose from the naturalistic exhibit traditions of Hagenbeck and Akeley. It is responsive to our increased concern to protect wild animals and wild places by educating and involving urban populations. This approach benefited mutually from parallel development in exhibit materials technology and craft and the introduction of contextual exhibits in museums.

Use of immersion exhibits seems to give great scope to affective learning and, based on its present popularity, adds important recreational dimensions as well. " Quoted from "Landscape Immersion —- Origins and Concepts " by Jon Coe '1994 AZA Annual Conference Proceedings. The landscape immersion term and approach were developed in 1975 by Grant Jones, Dennis Paulson, Jon Coe and David Hancocks for Woodland Park Zoo.

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Natural Habitat Display...

"An animal cannot be isolated, even conceptually, from the particular environment to which it has become adapted during eons of geologic time without a serious misunderstanding of its true nature."

Mary Akeley, 1936

Cultural Resonance

Landscape or habitat immersion gained wide acceptance before the concept was expanded to include vernacular architectural and cultural environments in zoo exhibits. This concept was first developed by Carl Hagenbeck in 1907 and was revived and expanded in the 1980's. It adds an important human dimension to immersion design tremendously increasing education opportunities and value.

"This concept has made a strong come back... in recent zoo exhibits at Zoo Atlanta, Bronx Zoo and Woodland Park Zoo. These current exhibits emphasize the interrelationship between traditional peoples and wildlife, point to a more naturalistic lifestyle alternative and, in some cases, alert visitors to the parallel extinction of wilderness and traditional cultures." From "The Evolution of Zoo Animal Exhibits " by Jon Coe, 1992 in The Role of Zoos and Biological Conservation: Past, Present and Future for a symposium 1992 AAZPA National Convention. The term "Cultural Resonance" was first used by Grant Jones and Woodland Park Zoo.

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School class studying tiger. Photo: Louisville Zoo

Theme and Storyline

Overall thematic organization of zoos was developed by Carl Hagenbeck in 1907. Storylines, narratives which add interest and continuity to groups of displays, emerged from simple storytelling and theatrical venues. Both themes and storylines had major impacts on zoo displays through their dramatic use at Disney's Animal Kingdom in Florida, USA. The use of themes and storylines, like cultural resonance, have added more depth to the concept of immersion design in recent years.

The storylines " each exhibit and related groups of exhibits in a consistent environmental context. They establish fundamentals and prescribe an approach which when understood and followed will produce exhibits appropriate and responsive to their intent." Quoted from Woodland Park Zoo Long-Range Plan, Development Guidelines and Exhibit Scenarios, Jon Coe was a co-author of this Jones & Jones master plan in 1976.

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Mr. Zuma and kids. Photo: J. Sebo

Activity-Based Design

Activity-based design emphasizes behavioral management as advocated by Hediger in the 1950's. This concept was updated in the 1980's to integrate the fields of behavioral enrichment, animal training, husbandry and design. Improved animal activity and fitness levels result in more active and interesting animal displays.

"Activity-based design begins with the premise that the animals' long term well-being is paramount and that environments, programs and procedures which advance this goal are frequently of great interest to the visiting public. Healthy animal with stimulating behavioral choices tend to be more active. Therefore, opportunity-rich animal environments, enlightened animal care and caretaker devotion should all be made visible to the public within a setting which demonstrates the animals' innate competence." Quote from "Entertaining Zoo Visitors and Zoo Animals: An Integrated Approach" by Jon Coe, Proceedings 1997 AZA Annual Conference. The term and concepts of "Activity-Based Design" were developed by Jon Coe and Gary Lee at CLRdesign, inc.

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Leopards lure coursing. Photo: CRES, San Diego Zoo

Affiliative Design

This trend which increase affiliative behavior and reduces aggression in social species, including people, gives a much better message about animals and their place in nature.

"'Building a bond between people and the planet', the Louisville Zoo motto, describes one of the major roles of zoos. Building upon the work of Hediger, Lorenz, Skinner and contemporary behaviorists, affiliative design provides positive opportunities to enhance the natural sociability of people and other primates, encouraging them to enjoy each other's company. What could be more natural? What could be more important for building the early and lasting bonds needed to support the long-term survival of endangered primates and other species in our human-dominated world? Quote from "Increasing Affiliative Behavior Between Zoo Animals and Zoo Visitors" by Jon Coe for 1999 AZA Convention Proceedings. This concept was developed by Jon Coe at CLRdesign, inc.

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Gorilla and child. Photo: Topeka Zoo

Rotation Design

The most recent step in exhibit design is the rotation exhibit. Having various groups of animals transfer between different exhibit areas on a regular basis during the day can combine all the concepts of immersion design, themes, storylines and culture elements with activity-based training to add to the impact of zoo exhibits for both visitors and animals.

"Immersion exhibits have changed animal zoo exhibition using 'nature' as the model for international best practice, yet even the most diverse zoo habitats don't provide animals occupations and animals soon become habituated with resulting decrease in animal activity and visual interest for the public. At Louisville's (Kentucky USA) Islands Exhibits orangutan, tapir, babirusa, siamang and Sumatran tiger rotate through four habitat areas on a randomly determined schedule. Five years of behavioral observations show normal stress levels, increased activity and previously unseen natural behaviors." Abstract from "Mixed Species Rotation Exhibits" by Jon Coe for 2004 ARAZPA Annual Conference. This concept was developed by Jon Coe and Gary Lee at CLRdesign, inc.

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Diagram of rotation exhibit at Toledo Zoo. Diagram: Jon Coe

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