Zoo and Aquarium Design

We are pleased to bring you the first WAZA Magazine dedicated to exhibit design at zoos and aquariums. Why would we focus on design when there are so many pressing issues facing zoos and aquariums? Simply put, design is a critical tool that can shape our animals' well-being and our visitors' experiences. It determines how we tell our stories and creates the primary physical interface with our visitors. It influences the efficiency and effectiveness of our facilities and significantly impacts animal care and welfare. Zoo and aquarium design should not be simply about creating novel ways to house and view animals; it has to serve a greater purpose, one that engages our visitors in our conservation and animal welfare missions.


Over the past few decades, the complex and unique considerations that go into designing zoos and aquariums has led to the emergence of a highly skilled and motivated cadre of zoological design specialists. The articles that follow examine questions around the future of zoo and aquarium design from the perspective of some of the leading practitioners in the field, all of them members of or affiliated with WAZA.


Design for zoos and aquariums involves much more than "enclosure design". In addition to animal exhibit spaces, it is vital to consider behind-the-scenes management and support areas, associated public spaces and tactical approaches to story-telling, including high- or low-tech interpretive media. As we think about the future of zoo and aquarium design, it is important to consider the advances of the past and to pose key questions about the directions in which our institutions may evolve.


What is our mission? Each zoo or aquarium will have a specific mission relevant to their organisation and cultural context, but today most are (or will be) defining themselves in the broader context of supporting conservation. Holistic integration of our conservation mission from animal exhibits, to merchandise in the gift shop, to marketing is essential. We need to be engines for conservation funding, innovators of research and science that support conservation, stewards and propagators of insurance populations and - perhaps most critically - places that facilitate conservation awareness and action for our millions of visitors.


Who are our audiences and what do they want? This will differ depending on location and history. Understanding not just sociological and demographic composition of our audiences, but knowing more about visitors' expectations will give us a framework for designing meaningful and engaging visitor experiences.


How do we stay relevant? Understanding why we are or are not relevant to different audiences can help us design exhibits to reach a broader audience. Increasing our visitors' understanding of the important conservation and science work done at zoos and aquariums can help create relevant connections. Also, as zoos and aquariums are increasingly involved in local conservation projects, we are positioned as a source of environmental information and opportunities for action.


How do we define and design our visitor experience? Our unique and defining element is living animals. How do we facilitate and interpret staring into the eyes of another species; contact with another sentient being? How do we use this to best effect? In many places, zoos and aquariums are an antidote to urbanity; a place to connect with nature and escape daily life. People have always come to zoos and aquariums to make memories and we facilitate this important social bonding experience.


What are the most impactful and appropriate design strategies? Landscape immersion can be an effective strategy in some situations, but it is not necessarily appropriate everywhere. How do we use all of the tools in our toolkit to engage our visitors? Graphics, interactives, technology, events, programmes, live interpretation can all play an important role in achieving our goals and they all have design implications.


How can we support our mission with design? Opportunities for new revenue streams can be thematically integrated into master plans and new exhibits to support financial growth.


What are the elements of design that facilitate the best in animal care and welfare? Designers focus on the public experience, but without good support spaces and infrastructure, zoos and aquariums cannot function. Animal holding spaces, life support systems, propagation spaces are just a few of the necessary programmatic needs. Best practices in husbandry and animal welfare reveal changing physical and psychological needs, which can be facilitated by good design.


How do we use design to support sustainable populations? As we design master plans and individual exhibits, we need to consider space for propagation and science. Partnerships with other zoos and aquariums can provide shared resources of space, scientific expertise or funding and including these programmatic elements in design can support collective efforts for conservation and sustainable populations.


The projects featured in the 2016 edition of the WAZA Magazine illustrate a variety of responses to some of these questions. In a time when the role of our institutions is increasingly subjected to scrutiny and criticism, and yet the need for what we offer is growing, the importance of good, holistic design is more important than ever.


Please click on the following link to download the WAZA Magazine 17: Future of Zoo and Aquarium Design (4.3 MB).

  • Cover WAZA Magazine 17
  • Zoo Design_1
  • Zoo Design

    Zoo Design

    (1) - (2) © Julie Larsen Maher/WCS