African Forest



of an Exhibit

by Jennifer murphy Chapman

Published on June 27, 2011

  • Description:

    While I was in Houston for this year’s American Association of Museums’ annual meeting, I ducked out to visit the Houston Zoo and see their new African Forest exhibition. I’d heard a lot about the $40 million dollar 6.5 acre project, and wanted to check it out.

    We all go to zoos to see the animals. Like most modern zoos, the Houston Zoo uses visitor interest in the animals as a hook to teach the importance (and, often, difficulty) of conservation efforts in the animals’ native habitat.

    The African Forest is no exception. It addresses the problem of poaching in West Africa, and on the benefits of conservation and ecotourism. One example that really shines here is a video of the zoo’s three white rhinoceroses and their journey from Africa to Houston. The video explains how endangered these creatures are thanks to the black market value of its horn, and how important captive breeding populations are to the species. (Some Asian cultures believe the horns have healing powers, and some Middle Eastern cultures value the horns as dagger handles.) The documentary-style video shows the careful process of moving these three animals across the ocean, including the 54-hour cargo flight with their own team of veterinarians. In addition to the information about the white rhino’s heartbreaking situation in the wild, the video gives visitors a chance to think about where zoo animals come from, and how zoos’ missions can help on a global level.

    The four types of African forest animals on exhibit are chimpanzees, white rhinoceros, kudu, and Masai giraffes. Parents will be happy to find wide, stroller-friendly pathways and several climb-on, play-in elements to keep toddlers and preschoolers entertained. Short, interesting labels and simple interactives will keep parents and older siblings happy, too.

    However, the exhibition has a serious flaw. Its conceit involves following a fictional character, Tommy, through the African forest. Tommy, the exhibition’s story goes, was a poacher who used to capture wild animals for private collections. But after he survived a jungle plane crash and Baka Pygmies nursed him back to health, he saw the error of his ways, and became an advocate for protecting Africa’s animals.

    But you won’t know any of that unless you pick up and read a wordy brochure at the exhibit’s entrance. Tommy is an interesting idea for the focus of this exhibition, but the set-up fails. Tommy’s notes and journal entries create a first-person storyline for the exhibit, but without context you’re not sure who Tommy is. I wondered: is he a child? is he a naturalist? is he an Indiana Jones-type character? is he a personified animal? The exhibit designers created an entry video, but it only mentions Tommy without explaining his story. Never mind that the bright Texas sun washed out the video screens and the volume wasn’t loud enough, the exhibit team missed a multimedia opportunity to explain their conceit to visitors who do not notice or choose not to read the brochure.

    And chances are, I’m not the only one who missed this explanation. Visitors are notoriously bad at reading exhibition panels, and they are even more unlikely to read brochures. Plus, visitors often blow straight past orientation signage all together. I paused to read some of it, and still passed up the brochure (which I thought was a map).

    It would have been more effective to present Tommy and his story in a repeated and layered fashion. Perhaps in the entry video, again on signage just past the entry gate, and in a few key places throughout the exhibition for guests who missed the introduction the first time.

    Despite the fact that I didn’t understand who Tommy was as I read the exhibit signage, I enjoyed my trip to the African Forest. I especially liked the giraffe and white rhinoceros areas, where there are interesting interpretive elements (I’ve included pictures of some of my favorites). And I am always a fan of the well-written, short-text-block signage I found throughout this exhibit. If you have a chance to see this new jewel in the Houston Zoo’s crown, don’t miss it. But also, don’t miss the entry brochure about Tommy.

Latest Comments (1)

"Pygmy" - eek

by Tisha Carper long - July 22, 2011

Nice review, thanks. Kind of icky to see that the word “Pygmy” is still used to describe the people who call themselves Twa. It sort of puts them on a less-than-human status, don’t you think?

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