At zoos, aquariums, and museums, the best enclosures and exhibits are attractive and popular, draw guests to the experience, and bring them back to the venue again for more of the same. Staff members discuss their top designs, future plans, and tips for creating these engaging displays.
At the Museum of Art and History (MOAH) in Lancaster, Calif., Operations Manager Andi Campognone said the key to designing exhibits is to focus on the uniqueness of the museum space. “MOAH celebrates both post-war art and history made in southern California. With a specific focus on industry and the history of north Los Angeles County – such as aerospace, sustainable energy, and unique high desert landscape, it’s exciting to marry the concepts and materials of specific art to the historic contributions of the region.” She described some of the museum’s most popular exhibits as those that gave guests a new way of looking at just that. In 2012, the museum’s grand opening show, “Smooth Operations: Substance and Surface in Southern California Art” celebrated materials such as resins, polymers, fiberglass, lucite, invented and designed in the aerospace industry in the 1950s and 1960s. Campognone said these are “at the core of many contemporary art genres. This history was the impetus for our show.” Part of that exhibition’s popularity was that it provided “an opportunity to celebrate the connection between aerospace and fine art” in an area where aerospace has been a force of innovation and employment.
According to Campognone, “Another popular exhibit, “Green Revolution 2016,” focused on artists’ representations of sustainable living through renewable energy, urban gardening and the concepts of reusing and recycling materials.” The exhibition included watercolor paintings, sculpture made from rain gutter downspouts, and wind turbine parts as high art. “This exhibit was an opportunity for visitors to rethink their energy usage and their carbon footprint,” she attested. Upcoming is an exhibition of 65 narrative fiber artworks, “Woven Stories,” which she described as a group show with site-specific installations. “Artists explore themes of gender, ethnicity, shared and personal memory, and cultural detritus through traditional methods…,” she explained, describing the exhibition as “a contemporary look at fiber art and the meaning behind its creation, use, and display in modern culture.”
In Minot, N.D., at the Roosevelt Park Zoo, Jennifer Kleen, executive director of the Greater Minot Zoological Society, said that currently, one of the most attractive and popular enclosures at her facility involves Nigerian dwarf goats. “We have five of them, and they have the ability to walk over a bridge right above people who are visiting. Part of the popularity of the exhibit is getting up close and personal with the animals, having that experience.”
Designing a great enclosure is all about providing guests with exactly that proximity, while offering a comfortable environment for the animals.
“Animal welfare is our top priority. We always think of them first.” Second comes inspiring the public to help species in the wild, and with that in mind, “The way they experience the zoo is important. We are using a lot of glass features in our new exhibits, and more signage, and more tactile things, such as making a used enrichment ball for tigers available for visitors to touch. It was shredded in play, and it’s a good way to sense the power of a tiger, by showing people how much they have done to that ball.”
The zoo is currently building brand new habitats for tigers and lions planned to open in late summer. “They are 10 times the size of what we currently have; we are updating facilities that were originally built in the 1970s.” Both exhibits include glass features so visitors can look straight in at an animal through a clear pane of glass. “They are designed so tigers can be tigers and lions can be lions.” The tigers will have three outdoor yards to fit their solitary lifestyle; in the lion exhibit, because lions spend more time inside due to the North Dakota weather, they have a larger day room that people can observe. Both are year-round exhibits.
In Chandler, Ariz., at the Chandler Museum, Collections Curator Nate Meyers explained that the new museum has no permanent exhibits; semi-permanent installations are curated by the museum’s full-time staff of three. Currently, among the most popular exhibits is “Gaman: An exhibition about enduring Japanese internment” at the Gila River just outside Chandler during World War II. “It’s a very powerful exhibit. We have a lot of stories about people who were there, art pieces incorporated, as are artifacts from the camp.” The exhibition is popular in part because it encompasses a local story. “We try to take local stories and tell bigger ideas through them. This is something that happened in our backyard, and we try to fit Chandler into this big national story.”
In designing a truly great exhibit, Meyers said, “New subjects only get you so far. It’s important to try to tell a story with your exhibit. We are not interested in just throwing things on a wall; we want to be compelling and make an impact. Guests really enjoy engaging with stories.” Coming up, the museum will be hosting a series of traveling exhibits including one on archeology in the Southwest. “It features aerial photography of sites taken in the 1920s by Charles and Anne Lindbergh, recreated shot by shot by an artist in the last 10 years. It juxtaposes what it looked like 90 years ago and in the last 10 years.” Also upcoming: a partnership with a local art gallery whose artists will create art inspired by artifacts in the museum’s collection, and the traveling exhibit “Apron Strings,” that tells stories of 60 different people who wore these aprons.
At the Tucson Museum of Art and Historic Block in Tucson, Ariz., Senior Curator Christine C. Brindza said successful recent exhibitions described two 2018 exhibitions, “30 Americans: Rubell Family Collection,” and the “Arizona Biennial 2018” as among the museum’s most popular. “In brief, “30 Americans” brought in diverse audiences to the museum. The exhibition showcased well-known African American artists, many of them for the first time in Tucson. Through this exhibition, we created new partnerships with Tucson communities and cultivated new audiences,” she attested. As to the Biennial exhibition, she terms it a staple at TMA, the only one in the state, a juried exhibition that displays established and emerging artists from Arizona. “It reflects the Arizona art scene and attracts people from all over the state.” Coming up, Brindza is excited about exhibitions such as “Travelogue: Grand Destinations and Personal Journeys,” among others. She offers this advice on designing a new exhibition: “Generally, I would recommend in the planning stages to keep in mind that shows should be site specific, and culturally relevant to audiences. In developing a checklist and the layout, be creative. Unique pairings and making innovative connections can help audiences resonate with the objects on view.”
Also in Tucson, at the International Wildlife Museum, Exhibit and Marketing Manager Amy Soneira said that for her museum, “Designing a great exhibit is really about being interactive; it’s very important that kids have something to do and not just look and read signs.” A visually pleasing exhibit is also important, she asserted. Unlike the Chandler Museum, many exhibits here are permanent. Of rotating ones, Soneira described the popularity of “Our current ‘Jigsaw Puzzle’ exhibit. It’s a giant puzzle that’s made up of 36,300 pieces depicting the rain forest and wildlife. Its 19-feet long and 6.5-feet high. Many of the animals shown are in a display as well, and we have many small puzzles that children can do.” She said the exhibit’s uniqueness and interactive elements are what make it so appealing.
Looking ahead, she noted, “We are planning a new aquatic exhibit featuring sharks and fish, which is something we really haven’t done before. We will have a suspended mount of a hammerhead shark from the ceiling, and a jaw of a great white shark.” It too will have interactive elements, and offer a fresh take on animal life.”
And speaking of marine life, at The Maritime Aquarium, in Norwalk, Conn., Dave Sigworth, associate director of communications, speaking for Exhibits Director Tom Frankie, said while many of the most popular exhibits are permanent, such as sharks, sea turtles, and the aquarium’s highly successful jelly fish exhibit that features a dozen different species, an exhibition that opened last July, “Just Add Water” is also a strong attraction. “It moves from the desert to the rain forest, so guests can meet animals from these areas,” he said. The exhibition features separate communities of plants and 23 animals, with 21 of those never previously displayed at the aquarium, including Georffroy’s tamarin monkeys. According to the aquarium’s Director of Animal Husbandry Barrett Christie, the exhibit adds a new accessible element to the aquarium, along with the surprise that land-based animals are included here. The tie-in is the ocean itself. Christie said, as all the animals’ habitats are “the product of the oceans’ influence.”
Sigworth said top tips for designing the best possible exhibit include “Offering guests a clear sightline of the animals, but at the same time providing a balance, so that an animal has the ability to rest and relax, and not feel stressed if it doesn’t want to be watched at a specific time. It’s about creating a natural habitat along with things the animals can engage with, and giving guests that sightline.”
With the comfort of the animal in mind, Sigworth said, “We are quite different from many aquariums in that we focus on one body of water, the Long Island Sound; the animals are native to that, and so we always make sure they are in the habitat they are used to. We also create an environment that encourages foraging and prey behavior, with new elements that change frequently to keep them engaged and active, and offer enrichment.”