The Impact of Immersive Exhibit Design on Visitor Behaviour and Learning at Chester Zoo, UK
As extinction rates accelerate, zoos have evolved from places for public entertainment to centres of conservation, research and education. Zoo-based learning is inherently ‘free-choice’, meaning it is subject to visitors’ experiences, baseline knowledge and visit agendas. Naturalistic, ‘immersive’ exhibits are commonplace in modern zoos and should provide the sense of discovery that maximises free-choice learning. Chester Zoo is developing Grasslands, a multi-species, immersive exhibit based on African savannahs, due to open in 2023. To assess the educational potential of Grasslands, this study uses a mixed-methods approach combining quantitative visitor observation data with qualitative surveys to compare visitor learning at three Chester Zoo exhibits housing charismatic grassland megafauna. The Giraffe House is a traditional, ‘second-generation’ exhibit lacking naturalistic features, whereas Mkomazi Painted Dog Reserve is an immersive, ‘third-generation’ exhibit. Tsavo Black Rhino Reserve is a functional but aesthetically pleasing exhibit, treated as an intermediate. While visitor ‘dwell time’ was almost five times higher at the Giraffe House than Mkomazi, visitors were more than twice as likely to engage with interpretation at Mkomazi than the Giraffe House, and spent significantly more time doing so at Mkomazi than any other exhibit. Survey data revealed occasional, modest increases in knowledge at Mkomazi and Tsavo, while there was no evidence of increased knowledge at the Giraffe House. While overall dwell time did not influence learning, a tentative link between engagement with interpretation and learning outcomes can be drawn. Providing attractive and engaging interpretive elements should therefore be central to the design of Grasslands.