Every year for as long as I can remember, my family took a trip to the Bronx Zoo in the summer months. When the days get long and the weather is practically begging me to be outside as much as possible, I can’t help but continue that summertime zoo tradition.
The Bronx Zoo has come a long way from my visits as a child – the days of big cats in large cages, surrounding the sea lion pool at Astor Court. These charismatic felines have since been moved around the zoo; exhibits are now designed to represent the interconnectedness of a region’s ecosystem. The lions are on the African Plains, alongside storks and gazelle. The snow leopards can (sometimes) be spotted in the Himalayan Highlands; in addition to the cranes and red pandas, the exhibition space includes representations of Himalayan art. In the last fifteen years, the Bronx Zoo has transformed itself into a center for conservation and global environmental awareness.
How do they do it? Tiger Mountain, opened in 2003, is an expanded habitat for the zoo’s Siberian tigers. It includes a large woodland living space, with a pool and plenty of space to observe tiger behaviors. The exhibit is more than just space for viewing the animals or learning about their diet and social habits, however. The zoo’s curators, while they have the rapt attention of their visitors, use the space to alert us to the status of tigers as endangered species. A map of the world shows the reduced range of the species; a second map illustrates the work the Bronx Zoo and the Wildlife Conservation Society are doing to protect tigers and their natural habitats in Asia. A complex model of a poacher’s truck is full of interactive features to teach kids and their families about the ways poachers capture, kill, and transport tiger products for the black market. The Zoo sparks excitement and imagination in kids and adults alike, AND engages the community in their larger mission.
Can museums inspire social action, too? I sometimes forget that zoos and museums have much to learn from each other. Yes, zoos have living collections and the whole range of perks and problems that come along with that, but we share a similar function as sites of informal learning. Our collections can inspire visitors to think about contemporary societal issues – and to take action. Zoos manage to leverage that ability unselfconsciously – it’s hard to imagine a zoo today that doesn’t encourage its audience to confront issues of shrinking rainforests, climate change, or poaching.
Does this encourage citizen action? As a kid, I remember telling my brother he couldn’t get that parrot he wanted; I had learned at the zoo that most parrots were products of the illegal trade in exotic wildlife. Tiger Mountain provides a few suggestions for getting involved in the fight to save wild tigers – choosing politicians who support wildlife conservation, for example. (There is always room for improvement; Nina Simon from Museum 2.0 talks about how museums can better incite their visitors to action here.) What the zoo does most successfully is raise awareness; I came away with a sense of my place in the global world, and how my behaviors can affect the environment around me.
In my experience, history museums in particular tend to shy away from this kind of activism. We should take a page from the zoo’s book and consider more opportunities to use our collections to encourage civic action.
2300 Southern Boulevard
Bronx, NY 10460
Open Monday-Friday, 10am-5pm; Weekends, 10am-5:30pm