Issue date: 23 October 2002

Recent changes in the design of zoo displays, and the manner in which visitors interact with the displays will the subject of study for a project funded by the Economic and Social Research Council’s Science in Society programme. Dr. Nils Lindahl-Elliot, a senior lecturer at the University of the West of England’s School of Cultural Studies, has just been awarded £130,000 to fund a detailed two-year study of how zoos communicate with the public about science and nature.

The research will take place in the Bristol Zoo Gardens and in the Paignton Zoo Environmental Park. Both zoos have been extensively remodelled in recent years, and are currently planning new exhibits. The results of the project may enable the Bristol and Paignton Zoos, but also zoos throughout the country, to develop new forms of science communication that help visitors to engage more critically with a variety of environmental issues.

According to Dr. Lindahl-Elliot, many zoos in the U.K, Europe and America have recently changed their characteristic forms of displaying wild animals. "The emphasis is now on presenting wild animals in more naturalistic settings, and on promoting wildlife conservation. Zoos are also experimenting with new kinds of exhibits – such as insects in urban habitats – that challenge accepted criteria for what may be displayed in zoos and wildlife parks."

Dr. Lindahl-Elliot’s interest in zoos is part of a broader project that investigates the modern history of the relation between mass mediation and the social representation of science and nature.

“While it may seem that the media have only recently begun to affect the design of zoos, my research suggests that this process has been a long time in the making. The design of many of the first modern zoos was arguably influenced by the practices of 19th century 'media' such as landscape paintings and gardens, as well as by public outcry in the press over the 'inhumane' conditions found in ancient menageries such as the one at the Tower of London."

In the current project Dr. Lindahl-Elliot will be particularly interested in investigating how the communication of science and nature at the two zoos is affected by the most recent forms of mass-communication, contemporary environmentalist sensibilities, and of course, current views on the nature of animal rights.

The research will be undertaken using in-depth analyses of the existing displays, and participant observation of between 16 and 20 families visiting each zoo. The project will also produce broader surveys of design trends in major zoos in Britain, Europe, and America, and of visitors' experiences of zoos in the Bristol and Paignton areas. It will combine a range of disciplines - semiotics, anthropology, sociology, and the sociology of education - that have previously not been brought together to study the communication of science and nature in zoos. It is hoped that the methods used, as well as the results of the research will be of significance not just to zoos, but to other public institutions such as aquaria, nature theme parks, and museums of science and natural history.


Editor’s notes

1. The research project is being funded by £130,000 from the Economic and Social Research Council’s Science in Society programme.

2. The ESRC is the UK's largest funding agency for research and postgraduate training relating to social and economic issues. It has a track record of providing high-quality relevant research to business, the public sector and Government. The ESRC invests more than £46 million every year in social science research. At any time, its range of funding schemes may be supporting 2,000 researchers within
academic institutions and research policy institutes. It also funds postgraduate training within the social sciences, thereby nurturing the researchers of tomorrow.
The ESRC website address is http://esrc.ac.uk.

3. Dr. Lindahl-Elliot’s previous research has also been supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, and by the British Academy.

4. Results of his earlier research will appear in 2003 in a book entitled 'Mediating Nature: Environmentalism and Modern Culture', to be published by the Open University Press.

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