Interpretation at Auckland Zoo

Back in May, I visited Auckland Zoo on my last day in the city for the MA2016 conference. A colleague and I had a good wander around, and I was impressed with the number of different ways information was presented across the exhibits. Here I’d like to share some of my favourites.

I was really impressed with the range of different ways the zoo tells their stories, from printed panels to interactive screens to property services signage. This provides a variety of ways in which visitors can engage with the information, which – as I’m learning – can be a very effective strategy.

In Beverly Serrell’s informative book Exhibit Labels: An Interpretative Approach (look out for a review here in coming weeks) she states:

“If an essential exhibit message… is embodied in only one element that may have an exclusionary appeal, such as a video or a panel of written text, that message will be lost on the person who chooses not to use that element. Therefore, it is important to make essential communication objectives available to visitors through a variety of modes and styles.”

Serrell, B. (2015). Exhibit Labels: An Interpretive Approach (2nd ed.). Pg 84. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield.

Auckland Zoo’s Te Wao Nui precinct at Auckland Zoo, which is home to many native New Zealand species, is a great example of using multiple methods to share a particular story. Not only were the more standard printed information panels in evidence, but information was also delivered via screens and even, my personal favourite, on the side of tin cans displayed pantry-style (see below).

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I love this method of delivering information about the whio (blue duck), because not only is the display eye-catching, but the information is delivered in bite-sized chunks. That makes it easier to remember, and the repetition on multiple cans seems to emphasise its importance. Diet, habitat, behaviour, conservation status and more are covered using minimal words and a highly visual medium.

Another favourite of mine is a panel displaying artist portraits of certain animals in the Pridelands precinct. It provides a really nice close-up visual of some of the exhibit’s residents, but also shares the scientific names of the different species in easily read cursive that drew the eye. For me, it made the Latin seem softer and less intimidating, an effect it may also have on other visitors.

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The printed panel on display at the Galapagos tortoise exhibit is a good example of an informative panel that embodies tips in Serrell’s book for writing panels that visitors actually want to, and will, read. She states:

“Orientation, introductory, and section labels, which are typically too long – over three hundred words – should be edited down and broken into shorter paragraphs (twenty to thirty words each.”

Serrell, B. (2015). Exhibit Labels: An Interpretive Approach (2nd ed.). Pg 43. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield.

The Galapagos tortoise panel has three short paragraphs, none longer than 30 words each, containing some of the key facts and figures about these massive reptiles. [Side note: for more fun facts about the zoo’s different animals, check out their website. I was pretty stoked to learn that these tortoises get so heavy it can take five people to lift them.] This text is backed up by the use of a graphic, showing where they actually come from, and a couple of short bullet points letting visitors know that they’re vulnerable, and why.

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There’s lots of information in this panel, but it’s not daunting to look at or read. I think panels like this are really effective in telling an engaging, accessible, interesting story about the animal, without appearing intimidating, boring or too much work.

Finally, one of my favourite talks at MA2016 was ‘The Memeing of Life’ by Wendy Pryor. I’m a fan of memes, as probably way too many of my friends and former colleagues will attest, and it was really interesting to consider them as a valid – and often extremely effective – way institutions like museums and, in this case, zoos can reach out to different audiences and get amongst pop culture.

So it was with absolute glee that I came across the below poster stuck on a cracked glass panel at the otter enclosure at Auckland Zoo. I thought this was a really novel and funny way of tackling what is essentially a health and safety notice. It just shows that you can be a bit creative with general signage if you think outside the box and embrace less traditional channels of interpretation or communication.

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As someone who’s lived and breathed museum interpretation for the past four years – and effective communication or storytelling methods for much longer – I can get pretty picky and, let’s face it, judgemental. But on my walk through Auckland Zoo I was just delighted with the all the different ways I, and other visitors, could interact with the stories of these animals.

While I was there, I noticed a bunch of construction happening around Auckland Zoo. So I’m really looking forward to visiting again in the not too distant future to check out any new interpretation that appears. And, of course, see my fuzzy otter favourites.

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