I was already excited to go to the Smithsonian National Zoo. I love animals, and value them as “object based” learning “tools.” At the Children’s Museum & Theatre I educate with Nigel,Bizzy-Bob, Eloise and Dill–four yellow belied slider turtles. These turtles create so many opportunities for inspiration andndiscovery for visitors of all ages. I was excited to see this level of inspiration on a exponentially larger scale. I was not disappointed. During the lovely dialog we had with Devra Wexler and Cheryl Braunstein, I was challenged to think of the strengths and weaknesses of using narrative in a zoo, or while educating with live animals in general.
Visitors are undoubtably shaped by anthropomorphism. We empathize and assign human traits and feelings to animals. We watch these creatures eat, sleep, care for their young, see their family members and because of these, and other observations, quickly connect with these animals far more naturally than inanimate objects in traditional museums. We see ourselves as these animals, and create stories that make sense of what they are doing based on our own understanding. This causes us to care for the animals, which is part of the goal, but also can cause people to question the animals’ captivity. We would not want to be enclosed, why would these creatures?
So the challenge is, how can we (educators) harness people’s natural tendency to put these animals into a narrative as a chance to go deeper and share more goals of conservation. How can visitors see animals as an ambassador for their species? This challenge is complicated by the fact that the animals themselves are darn cute! Why would visitors pay attention to anything else? From discussions with Danielle and Devra, I think the key lies somewhere near design and learning from evaluation of that exhibit design. By studying where people go and for how long we can determine spaces to put in more information to deepen the narrative and deepen the visitor connection. When designing the “more” piece, why not utilize people’s tendency to empathize with animals and create an interactive where the visitor is the animal in the zoo, and showcase the careful care each zoo creature gets? This interactive is not created yet, but I fully expect this brainchild of Danielle to be created at the zoo shortly!
I was slightly expecting the magic to end at mid-day, like Cinderella’s carriage (in this case meaningful eye contact with an orangutan) would turn into the pumpkins, in the sprawling gardens of yet another well preserved wealthy person’s house. I can find meaning and awe in the opulence of the once rich and famous, but often tire of the narrative, especially if that wealth is at the expense of others. However, I was delightfully surprised to learn more about Ms. Marjorie Post and particularly came to respect her upon learning she brought classes of high school students to her house to educate them about the arts. The second delightful surprise was learning from the experience of Angie and her education team. This group of women that seemed more like family than co-workers taught me about the benefits of deepening relationships with certain visitor types, the importance of marketing, and how museums need to reinterpret their collection at various times.