The New Zoos: Science, Media and Culture

During the second half of the twentieth century, zoos underwent a remarkable transformation. Until the 1950s and 60s (in some cases much later), most zoos sought to enable publics to experience a wide repertoire of fauna in as close proximity to the captive animals as possible. But over the next 40 years, especially the zoos in the US and other industrialised nations embraced new forms of naturalism, and with them very different techniques of display. The bars and concrete of old were replaced with enclosures with landscaping that sought to give an impression of the captive animals’ original habitats. In the 1990s, zoos with such displays came to be described as the ‘New Zoos’.

The ‘New Zoos: Science, Media and Culture’ project combined semiotic, sociological and anthropological methods to investigate science and environmental communication in the context of the new techniques of display. Central to the research was a comparative case study with visitor research at two zoos in the southwest of England: the Bristol Zoological Gardens, and the Paignton Zoo Environmental Park. In addition to detailed participant observations with 35 family groups (some 130 parents and children), the project produced a survey with approximately 450 frequent zoo visiting households. This research was contextualised with the analysis of the displays of numerous ‘new zoos’ in the US, Europe and Australia, as well as interviews and participant observations with zoo industry professionals in symposia organised by BIAZA, the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

Dates: 2002 – 2005

Supported by: The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) Science in Society Programme

Key Publications: The New Zoos: Science, Media & Culture (End of Grant Report, 2005); ‘See It, Sense It, Save It: Economies of Multisensuality in Contemporary Zoos’ (The Senses and Society, 2006, Vol. 1 No. 2, 203-224); ‘Museums and the Challenge of Transmediation: The Case of Wildwalk’ (in Michelle Henning (ed.) The International Handbook of Museum Studies: Museum Media, Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2015, 43-68.)

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