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Rethinking the Zoo: Where Are the Gushing Oil Pumps in the Penguin Pool?

As habitats change, an artists’ installation at a Vienna zoo shows how the design of animal exhibitions may change with them.

Are museums and zoos being deceptive when they depict animals in a pristine version of their natural habitat? Should they design exhibits that reflect an idyllic environment, or the reality of an eroding world?

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The dioramas designed for natural history museums in the 1920s and 1930s that showed taxidermy animals brought the wonders of the natural world to us. The painted backdrops were real views lifted from the savannah of Kenya or a rainforest in Rwanda. The details were exhaustively researched, but the lighting and painting conveyed some Disney dazzle. As windows onto an exotic world, they were as much about the thrill as the science.

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When the American Museum of Natural History in New York began an expansive renovation of its halls in the 1990s they found that none of the scenes depicted in the dioramas still existed. The mountain gorilla tableaux had been visited by a museum staff member who found that the forests on the distant volcanoes had all been cut down and turned into terraced farmland.

Should institutions dedicated to the public understanding of the natural sciences depict a world untouched by civilization as a matter of history (and because they are a sentimental favorite that makes turnstiles spin)? The Schönbrunn Zoo in Vienna has chosen the opposite approach: this spring its animals share their pens with an installation created by artists Christoph Steinbrener and Rainer Dempf that reflects the degradation of animal habitats.

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In the world of Steinbrener and Dempf, a rhino shares its pool with an abandoned car and the penguins skitter about beneath an oil pump. Their installations may be more of a provocation to curators and designers than to the public. According to the artists, these scenes are an “experimental set-up” in which the “viewer is forced to reconsider traditional modes of animal presentation and simultaneously to question the authenticity” of restaging natural environments even as they disappear.

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