7 November 2017




Do you remember walking into a room at a museum and coming face to face with a piece of history or art that resonated with you? Perhaps you had the opportunity to visit the Rosetta Stone, to stand in the scenery of Starry Night, or to lock eyes with the Mona Lisa—or perhaps you can only still imagine as you save your pennies to travel to your dream museum.

Now think of the first time you went to a zoo. Seeing your favourite animals as they played with each other or were fed by their keepers—or maybe you left with a new favourite after you locked eyes with a young orangutan or an aging elephant. Regardless of what your experience was or what you dream it will be, there is no denying that both museums and zoos can create impactful and memorable experiences.

In both museums and zoos, we're often just looking for something—or someoneto connect with. Source.

Zoos have a lot in common with museums, to the point that they may be classified together as institutions. With a focus on education, conservation, and providing meaningful experiences for its visitors, museums and zoos have very similar goals with the primary difference being in the “collection” itself. It makes sense to refer to a zoo’s animals as its collection in this line of thinking, and certainly that’s what the animals were viewed as when the first zoos (or menageries) were established. But can we ethically place animals on the same level that we place any sort of artifact—regardless of its historic importance? While I would immediately answer “no”, it is worth thinking about the terminology since the words we use reflect our broader understanding of the concepts at hand.

Let's take a ride down the semantics slide. Source.

[Disclaimer: I am not arguing for or against zoos in general, nor delving into the highly problematic history of displaying humans in zoos / museum-like exhibitions; rather, I am simply musing about the ethical implications of classifying the animals they keep as a “collection” in the same sense as a museum’s collection.]

At least in North American zoos, the focus is mainly on conserving endangered species or individual animals who may be unfit to return to the wild while making these animals accessible to the public—much like a museum does with its objects. Zoos often embrace the “edutainment” aspect much more than the typical museum, but nonetheless, both aim to educate while providing some level of entertainment by providing unique experiences.

Where else can you learn about animals like red pandas up close and personal? Source. 

But if we use the same terms to refer to living collections as we do to standard collections of art and artifact, what does that mean from a collections management standpoint? Unlike the majority of museums (that make at least the core of their collections policy available to the public, if not a comprehensive document) I couldn’t find any similar policies available online for zoos in North America.

The lack of information on their collecting guidelines leads only to speculation. Are animals “deaccessioned” when they pass away? Are animals appraised before being acquired into the zoo’s collection? Which animals are determined to be relevant enough to the zoos mandate to house within the zoo, and does the appeal factor to visitors play a disproportionate role in selecting animals for display—and is this actually any different than current museum practice? And with each additional question in this line of thinking: what are the ethical implications of referring to animals as if they were on par with objects?

I firmly believe that by broadening our definition of museums to include a wider variety of informal education institutions, we can better understand our own practices at whatever kind of institution we happen to work at and improve our practices to reach a higher standard of professionalism. But in doing so, we need to be careful about which practices we’re equating, and what the implications of these comparisons may be.

Just something to muse about—until next time. Source.

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