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Since their inception, the purpose of zoos has evolved from glorified menageries to centers for conservation, education, and preservation. Because most zoos are dependent on visitor dollars to keep their gates open, risking visitor alienation through exhibit messaging is not often done. Instead, majority of zoos focus on animal-related education that essentially transfers knowledge from the zoo to its visitors, rather than challenge visitors to reflect on the impacts humans have on the world (Esson & Moss, 2013). In a study conducted at the Chester Zoo, in Chester, United Kingdom, Esson and Moss (2013) explored visitor tolerance to the exhibit “Hard Rain – Our headlong collision with nature” deemed “disturbing” for its pictorial coverage of broad environmental issues and contributions of humans to these issues.
Using an, “analysis of unstructured written feedback from visitors in the form of sticky (Post-It) note comments and unobtrusive visitor observations” (Esson & Moss, 2013, p.
84) this empirical study found that the exhibit served as an instrument for reflection in participants, often causing them to challenge their beliefs and those of other participants.
These findings are important as they call into question the previously held belief that zoo educational programming leads to a change in visitor knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors, and additionally suggests that influencing “the way visitors ‘feel’ about wildlife and the environment, in addition to what they ‘know’” (Esson & Moss, 2013, p. 93) can be impactful for getting visitors to make connections to their impact on nature.
The researchers explicitly identify the need for this study by first discussing the shifting perspectives on the role and purpose of zoo education and highlighting the challenge zoos face as they strive to find the perfect balance “between positive, upbeat experiences that support family motivations to visit and spend, and the delivery of, often stark, reminders of the responsibilities we all have toward protecting the environment” (Esson & Moss, 2013, p. 82). They go on to address the gap in the literature by stating current research in the field has not had universal acceptance regarding the effective positive educational impact of zoos. While majority of zoos around the world evaluate their educational outputs, the researchers argue there is a lack of measurement on educational outcomes (Esson & Moss, 2013).
With this gap in mind, Esson and Moss (2013) postulate zoo evaluations of educational programming that attempt to influence visitor attitudes and initiate behavior change need to not only incorporate measurements for visitor outcomes, but allow for positive and negative responses as well. While the researchers do not state their research questions directly, they do define the study’s purpose – “…to test visitor tolerance and receptivity to gloomy messages and stark imagery; and to trial and develop research methods to effectively evaluate visitor behavior and response” at a disturbing exhibit (Moss & Esson, 2013, p. 84). In this case, while explicitly stating the research questions would be helpful if I were to repeat the study, it is unnecessary for understanding the relationships of the variables (visitor responses and dwell times at a disturbing exhibit) being tested (Fraenkel, Wallen, & Hyun, 2014).
According to Fraenkel et al. (2014) literature reviews can help identify what current research exists on a topic as well as where gaps may exist, requiring more research to be conducted. In addition to highlighting a large gap in the field regarding the lack of measurement on the educational outcomes of zoo programs, Esson and Moss (2013) through their literature review cover: the role of the modern zoo; the educational claims of zoos; visitor motivation for attending zoos; and family agendas and motivations for visiting zoos. The researchers’ review of the literature meets the requirements of Fraenkel et al.’s (2014) purpose of a literature review and provides justification for doing the study through the identification of a major gap in the field.
The article describes how unstructured feedback was collected via an unstaffed comment board that allowed visitors to the exhibit the ability to anonymously post their thoughts and feelings about the exhibit. The study collected 227 comments, and researchers crudely separated these comments into adult and child categories confidently through an interrater reliability greater than 90%. Through an unobtrusive approach, the study employed a numerical observation of visitor behavior at the exhibit. A plain-clothed researcher, positioned where they could view the entire exhibit, recorded descriptive data about the visitor group, dwell time, behavior, and which direction visitor groups entered the exhibit. Using next available sampling, the researcher chose the target for observation by alternately choosing from both directions the first visitor to approach the exhibit (Esson & Moss, 2013). Using this form of sampling, 238 visitor observations were collected. Esson and Moss (2013) justify the use of these methods as:
Because in-house researchers would be conducting the evaluation, methods that did not require any direct contact with visitors were believed to be advantageous; for example, in the avoidance of response bias or demand characteristics in the visitors sampled. We sought to measure visitor ‘response’ to the exhibition, allowing for both negative and positive reactions. We felt that written comments would supply more considered responses and with the direct thoughts of visitors. Unobtrusive observations allowed the recording of more immediate, real-time, reactions to the exhibition. (p. 84)
Data analysis for the study utilized SPSS Text Analysis for Surveys to extract themes via algorithms from the unstructured feedback, and non-parametric measures such as Kruskal-Wallis and Mann-Whitney were used to analyze the unobtrusive observations (Esson & Moss, 2013).
Esson & Moss (2013) describe some study limitations, mainly that the Chester Zoo is the first zoo in the world to display the Hard Rain exhibit and that the exhibit itself is more designed for display in “Museums, universities, city centers, and even the UN building in New York…” (p. 83). Another limitation addressed by the researchers is that nearly two-thirds of consumers decide for one reason or another not to report their dissatisfaction; therefore, making claims that complaints or praise sent to the zoo outside of data collected at the exhibit, may not be “truly representative of wider feeling” about the exhibit (Esson & Moss, 2013, p. 89).
The researchers include delimitations of their study in multiple forms (Fraenkel et al., 2014). First, in recognition that exhibit images could be viewed as disturbing for younger audiences, and based on early feedback, two warning signs were placed at either end of the exhibit. Second, the exhibit location, “was carefully chosen bordering a zoo pathway where visitors could not see the images before they saw the signs” to allow visitors a choice regarding whether or not they wished to visit the exhibit (Esson & Moss, 2013, p. 83). Third, the timing of the exhibit opening was also planned to coincide with World Environment Day, with data collected during the summer months where the weather was favorable and schools were on break. This helped to ensure data was collected during times of high family attendance (Esson & Moss, 2013). Lastly, researchers utilized four ‘staged’ comments, hand-written by education staff members, to the board where Post-It note data was collected in an effort to “prompt visitor participation” (Esson & Moss, 2013, p. 85). Wording was not predetermined and reflected staff members’ personal opinions. These delimitations serve to provide justification for the choices researchers made throughout their study (Fraenkel et al., 2014).
Careful research design (Fraenkel et al., 2014) through the use unobtrusive observations and feedback allowed Esson and Moss (2013) to “reduce possible biases that direct researcher involvement may promote” (p. 82). Additionally, interrater reliability was employed to help ensure validity.
Overall, this study adequately addresses a gap in the literature and promotes through its findings, thoughtful discussion of the delicate balance zoos currently face in delivering unpopular and disturbing messages through their educational programming and exhibit design.
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