The Magic of High Technology:
How Lighting and Sound Immerse Visitors to Zoo and Aquarium Exhibits

August 1, 2010 No Comments

Not so long ago, visiting zoos and aquariums was considered a spectator sport. Guests stepped up to the exhibits hoping that they would witness the animals doing something. Now, guests become part of the exhibit. Lighting and sound immerse visitors into the world of the animals that they see.
At Zoo Miami, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, sound and lighting help to transport visitors to the South American and Central American rainforests in the zoo’s “Amazon and Beyond” exhibit.  The 27-acre, $50 million exhibit opened in 2008, and with the use of plasma screens, projection screens, lighting and sound effects, visitors feel as if they are not only watching animals in the Amazon region but living with them. The exhibit takes guests through several zones including the Cloud Forest, Atlantic Forest and the Flooded Forests.   
“This exhibit is definitely education through entertainment,” said Ron Magill who serves as a member of the zoo’s exhibit planning committee and as its communications director as well. “We use light to focus attention on certain animals and we use directional lighting and color to set the tone and mood for guests as they walk through the exhibit. They feel as if they are in the Amazon.”
Magill noted that a great deal of planning has to go into what kind of lighting and sounds are used.  “We take into account the comfort of each animal. For example, we can’t have a sound that will frighten or stress out our Howler Monkeys. We know what sounds are soothing and what sounds are not.”
Magill believes that the immersive exhibits that use lighting and sound are needed to attract visitors who are bombarded with technology each day.    
“It’s no longer enough to stand in front of an exhibit and watch an animal hoping it will react. Now with interactive projection screens, and lighting and sound, if an animal is quiet and not doing anything for visitors, the guests can push a button and see images on the screen of the same animals participating in their normal activities. The added dimension to the exhibits helps connect visitors to the animals.”
The zoo, which is the largest in the state of Florida and welcomes more than 800,000 guests per year, designs exhibits that represent the natural habitats of the animals.  The lighting mimics the light that exists in the animal’s natural habitats and the sounds are realistic.
“We design every part of the exhibits to be as realistic as possible to the natural habitats of the animals.  In this way, the animals are more comfortable, and the guests are eager to learn. We want people to learn about these animals, and when they do learn, they want to see them thrive and they want to protect them, and that is an important part of our goal.”  
As Director of Exhibits and Design at the National Aquarium in Baltimore, Md., Scott Perich sees how lighting and sound can turn each visitor into an excited visitor.  The aquarium, which has more than 16,500 animals representing 660 species, welcomes 1.4 million guests each year.  
“Throughout its 30-year history, the National Aquarium has always incorporated light and sound into its exhibits.  However, it is more important than ever to make guests feel as if they are there with the animals in their own environment.”
When exhibits are designed, a great deal of research goes into learning about the real habitat. Lighting and sounds have to agree with the real lighting and sounds that emanate from the habitats.
“We have to be careful because we want to make sure the animals are not compromised in any way with the design of the exhibit. We don’t want sounds that upset them. We want sounds that add to the experience of our animals and our guests.”
Perich uses sound and lights to set mood and tone for the different zones that visitors go through in the aquarium.  
“Lighting helps visitors focus on an area in the aquarium. We don’t put them on specific animals because the fish in the tanks are always moving. The lights allow guests to see what is around the animal and how it lives.”
The audio that accompanies exhibits are original compositions that combine music with the natural sounds of the habitats.
“Lighting and sound are not meant to take over an exhibit. They add texture to an exhibit,” Perich noted.  “Our goal with lighting and sound is to enhance the experience of the visitors so that they become interested in the welfare of our animals.”
The addition of lighting and sound has become an important part of new exhibits at the Jacksonville Zoo in Florida as well.  As Director of Horticulture and Facilities, Bob Chabot, sees how incorporating light and sound in the exhibits makes the zoo’s animals more interesting to the 700,000 guests who visit each year.
“We use lighting in a more theatrical sense to highlight animals in our exhibits. We also use it to guide people through our exhibits, and we use heat lamps to warm the animals in the colder months,” Chabot said. “In recent years, the zoo has become the site for private events, and for safety as well as mood, we had to design lighting that guided people through the zoo, and that lighting could not adversely affect the animals. That means the lights cannot be too harsh, and the animals cannot get at the fixtures. We have to take into account how the animals will react to lighting.”
The addition of sound has proved to be successful in the newer exhibits and interactive areas of the zoo such as the Play Park. In the Play Park, children can participate in activities that are meant to stimulate their senses.  This area also contains a penguin, monkey and squirrel exhibit and a goat grooming area.  Nature sounds and music are constantly piped into the area.
“Even here we are careful what music and sounds we use. For example, we don’t want the goats to get upset because then the kids get upset and the experience wouldn’t be fun or educational. We do research, so we know what our animals respond well to and what they don’t.”  
Lighting is not a big issue at the Minnesota Zoo in Apple Valley as the zoo is only open during daylight hours. As the largest Zoo in Minnesota, it welcomes more than 1.3 million guests per year.  Two of the newest exhibits, the award-winning Minnesota Trail and Russia’s Grizzly Coast, rely on sound to immerse guests in the exhibits’ features.  
“The sound is designed to take guests through the various zones of the exhibits,” said Steve Boyd-Smith, interpretative planner of the zoo. “In the Minnesota trail, microphones pick up the real animal sounds and they are combined with computer-generated nocturnal sounds of crickets and other noises one would hear in the Minnesota northern woods.”
The Russia’s Grizzly Coast exhibit shifts guests from the surroundings of Minnesota to Russia’s far east coast. According to Boyd-Smith, sound is a big part of this transformation.  
“We have sounds that create crashing waves and sea birds and then we have six to eight other sound zones as well,” he noted. “We transition into sea otters and then interior scenes of Russia’s far eastern landscapes, which include grizzly bears. Here people can see and hear a geyser, steam vents and a bubbling mud pot. The mud pot is the most popular attraction in the zoo.”  
As exciting as it is to incorporate sound into the exhibits, Boyd-Smith is cautious with the animals.  
“If it’s an exhibit where the animals are behind panes of glass, the sounds are not disturbing to them. However, if they are behind just a mesh enclosure, we do not want to have sounds that might normally frighten them in the woods. We are here to teach about animals and to protect them, so we make sure we do just that.”
At the Mote Aquarium in Sarasota, Fla., 400,000 guests come each year to explore the secrets of the sea through touch pools, viewable-working labs and interactive exhibits that showcase sharks, dolphins, manatees and sea turtles, along with more than 100 other species of marine life.
“We went through a re-evaluation a year ago to assess our lighting and start the process of removing our negative background noises that comes from equipment such as water pumps,” explained Dan Bebak, vice president of the aquarium. “We want to make our visitors see the beauty of these animals without being distracted by harsh lighting or loud noises.”
Lighting for some exhibits is required, especially the live coral reef exhibit, which needs lighting to keep the coral alive.  The aquarium is also replacing older halogen lighting with LED lighting.
“LED lighting is softer and more soothing for animals, and it provides us with more flexibility when it comes to colors,” Bebak noted.  “The bigger reef exhibit includes jellyfish and the different LED colors make the jellyfish stand out and create such an amazing atmosphere.”  
Bebak also likes the LEDs for environmental reasons. The LED lighting offers a huge reduction in heat output, which cuts down on the cost of air conditioning in the aquarium and the cost for cooling the water tanks.
LED lighting is also essential for the aquarium’s interactive exhibits.  Lighting and sound draw in guests in the Shark Predator Prey exhibit, which is an interactive game that involves guests viewing a 30-foot screen.  Guests start out as plankton and they look to the screen to solve problems and figure out ways to climb up the food chain.
“We want our guests to learn as much as possible while they are here. Interactive exhibits using light and sound help us accomplish that goal,” Bebak said.  “When they become part of the exhibits, they see the beauty in these creatures, and they want to help them survive and thrive.” -

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