Looking at Zoos
Cultural Studies, 25:6, 809-842 (2011)
35 Pages Posted: 1 Dec 2011 Last revised: 5 Oct 2012
Date Written: October 1, 2011
Looking at zoos from the perspective of zoo personnel, this article explores the importance of vision in the zoo’s presentation of its animals as well as the major technologies that the zoo uses to intensify such animal visions. On the one end of the spectrum, zoogeography and immersion design are used at the zoo exhibit to enable zoogoers to see animals in their naturalistic settings. On the opposite end of the spectrum, animals are caged and cared for in the highly artificial settings of the zoo’s holding area, with little or no exposure to the public gaze. In between these most visible and most invisible zoo spaces, the zoo also contains numerous other spaces with varying degrees of animal visibility. The zoo’s gift shops, carousels, and promenades, despite not being exhibit spaces per se, nonetheless relay an important message that translates the zoo’s mission of nature conservation into small acts of capital. Drawing on thirty-five semi-structured, in depth interviews conducted between May 2009 and December 2010, mostly with zoo directors, curators, registrars, and designers, the article moves beyond the established Foucaultian and post-Foucaultian notions of panopticon and exhibition to suggest that, rather than being an end in itself, the act of seeing practiced at the zoo serves to reify nature as a pre-existing entity and to reeducate the populace about the proper relationship between humans and animals.
Keywords: looking and vision, animal studies, animal geographies, anthrozoology, zoogeography and immersion, politics of nature, panopticon and exhibition, Michel Foucault
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