Edinburgh Zoo – An ethnographic study (part 2)

This is my third post for assignment 3. I you haven’t already, head back to Edinburgh Zoo – An ethnographic study (part 1)



“Watch people watching the animals”

I could go out into a universe full of chairs and discover all the different varieties of chairs that there are, I could see how they are put together, how you can structure them in different ways, what they look like in different colours, what materials they can be made out of and that would make me an expert chairs. But that is only half of my research. As a designer, I am not designing a chair because I know everything about the mechanics and the aesthetics of a chair but because I want that chair to be used by a person. I am designing for people and therefore I must study people. If I have no idea what people want to get out of my chair then there isn’t much point designing it if it isn’t what people desire.


This trip to the zoo was all about gaining insight into human nature, but not just studying humanity; studying humanity and relating it back to my jewellery.

It took me a while to grasp that idea.

I would observe children climbing up on walls and railings and notice as their parents yelled at them to get down and think why should I care about this? how does this have anything to do with my jewellery? with my design process?

So, I thought about that observation with a different perspective; I looked at it as a problem I could solve.

Firstly, I asked myself if it was a problem?

Yes. The adults are not having as a good a time as they could because they have to shout at their kids and are therefore placed in a state of distress and the children could potentially hurt themselves + it probably wasn’t making the animals any happier.

Could I develop a piece of jewellery to aid in this problem?


But could I design something to help?


One solution could be, not just adding a step for children, but incorporating themes of the enclosure in with the stair. This idea, doesn’t just ensure the children are safer and enable peace of mind for the parents, it also encourages a greater interest in the animals (which is beneficial for the zoo as well as the patrons) for the children and increases learning capabilities. Example, for the tiger enclosure: add tiger markings and a tail, with tiger paw impressions for mummy, daddy and baby tigers, and little facts about the development of a tiger up the side, etc.

With that in mind I was able to observe little interactions within the zoo and think “I could come up with a design for that observation” and with that knowledge this became a greater learning experience. Although I wasn’t designing anything for the zoo, I was increasing my snooping skills and thinking about ways that I could apply what I had learned to my own practice and how I could use these skills in the future when I am solving problems.



Aspects of humanity that I observed while watching people watching the animals at the zoo:

The demographics of the zoo on the day that we visited were mainly (art students!) either, couples or families with young children. I would have expected a lot more children, but it was a school day that we visited on, so older children were at school and if we did see older kids they were on a school trip.

The zoo is a family friendly environment for a day out and it didn’t suprise me that it was families that were the main patrons.

Why do zoos attract families?

A place to stimulate their children, engage their interest in something new, an activity that parent (and sometimes grandparents, and other family members or groups of multiple families) and child can enjoy, exercise, learning, the zoo is advertised in ways that are appealing to children and therefore to adults, there are playparks, gift shops, interactive teaching media and talks from keepers as well as the obvious attraction towards the animals.

But I mentioned there were also a lot of couples (old and young) without children. Which corresponds with my view of the zoo appealing to both children and adults. I can only recall seeing one person by themselves; but he was taking photographs on an expensive looking photographer which lead me to believe he was there with a purpose. This indicates that the zoo is a social experience.

So, in theory the zoo is a good way to spend a day regardless of age or gender. There is something that appeals to everybody. Nobody detests animals enough not to enjoy a visit to the zoo. And, even people who may not agree with zoos can enjoy themselves. We had a conversation around cruelty and how the animals are treated at the zoo and there seemed to be two trains of thought: 1. the animals are caged therefore it is wrong, and yeah I do agree with that but 2. they are given mostly everything they would have in the wild and the zoo is doing a load of great conservation work and actually protecting most of these animals, in some cases (like one of the gorgeous white birds that name escapes me right now) a few species of animals that are in the zoo no longer exist in the wild (okay, so that is out fault in the first place, but at least we are doing something to protect the species). This ethical dilemma is a whole other blog post… however it leads to an observational point. Adults with children, and the kids themselves, would see all the positives and with them everything was based on fun and excitement. Adults without children and couples tended to discuss more than just facts about the animals, but about the enclosure and how they saw the animals. It was disheartening to watching the graceful big cats pacing and reduced to amusements but at the same time I personally love the zoo, having an opportunity to observe animals that I otherwise wouldn’t. Does that make me a bad person? Hypocritical? Maybe.

I’ve strayed from my point which was…… the zoo is a good day out for any gender or age group.

But what about class divides?

The zoo is an expensive day out. I would suggest, based on my observations of the clothing (which was all casual – nobody dresses up in fancy/expensive clothing to visit a zoo – and therefore made a little harder to distinguish wealth) and personal items the zoo patrons had, that it was mostly visited by working and middle class families. The zoo is a treat for any class of family, and therefore money is expected to be sent whether you make it cheaper by using family deals and packing your own lunch or not.

Unlike Bourdieu’s suggestion that it is people who are less culturally aware who don’t go to museums or galleries, everybody can feel comfortable in the zoo. “design and structure of capital institutions tend to exclude people who do not have the appropriate background or capital, and that they perform this exclusion while giving the appearance of being available to everyone. Working class people tend not to go to these places. Bourdieu, suggests because they are unsure of how to behave and the institutions do not make themselves user-friendly”*1 This didn’t exist at the zoo (or if it did, it was to a lesser and much less noticeable extent).

However, like at a museum or gallery (or for that matter in the majority of social settings and places) there are:

Unwritten RULES at the Zoo

1. If you stand right at the front of a busy enclosure for too long, while there are people waiting behind you, you must move away quickly as it is rude not too.

2. Children are given right of way and are allowed to push in front of anybody.

3. You do not touch, tap or bang on the glass/fencing/cage/etc.

4. If there are people, you don’t know, sitting around a picnic bench (even if there are no spares) you do not sit next to them. Same applies to any bench/seat, you must sit as far away from other people as possible.

5. Flashing cameras are gawdy and rude. Not to mention startling for the animals.

Some of these rules cross into other settings but were the main ones that I picked up on at the zoo.

Families and children are interesting to watch. Children don’t yet have a full understanding of social skills, and are therefore interesting to observe in contrast to adults and those without children because the behavior is very different.

Children run around and move quickly, everything in their skipping and jumping around suggests total delight in their surroundings whereas adults are much more conventional and walk with an air of calm (when the children are behaving) and serenity, the glee is less noticeable, the child within is only glimpsed at in the smiles dancing across their lips.

One thing that was clear of every person, old or young, was that the general atmosphere was reflected from the animals being observed. At the monkey enclosure people were more excited and loud because the monkeys were jumping and around and crying out,whereas at the flamingo/bird enclosures people were more reserved because the animals weren’t moving or making any noise.

It was beautiful watching parents trying to engage their children in the learning side of the zoo, talking to them about the animals and telling them easy facts; trying to nurture an interest in something.

Similarly adults without children and couple would often talk about the more factual sides of the zoo, relaying little bits and pieces of information to each other, sharing their knowledge, teaching each other.

On the whole it was adults without children who would read the signs and the information written about the animals. They had more time, without the pressure of entertaining a child, to read and absorb the information. Some adults however would read the information to their children, but as most of the kids were young they tended to keep their teaching more simple and in a language/way that their child would understand and were drawn into.

One thing that did surprise me was the adults who did not talk to their children about the animals or try to teach them anything. Some adults would position their children in front of the exhibit and when the kids attention was sufficiently caught by the animals the adults would step back a little and talk among themselves. I guess, in that respect, some adults need some down time for themselves away from their children and to socialize with their own peer group. Not having a child, I found it strange that parents wouldn’t devote their time to teaching their children or spending quality time with them.

When drawing closer to the enclosures people’s voices did lower slightly. Especially adults, was this out of respect for the animals? Although children tended to be louder, I did notice a group of children whispering around the big cats, out of respect? fear? excitement?

People would also move with the animals. When one of the little marmosets was following a pink camera held by one couple they moved back and forth in front of the glass mimicking the little creature as it moved. The observation glass where you could watch penguins swimming in the water was immense interest to everybody that passed it, especially children.

There is a glimpse into a world, underwater, that humans aren’t usually gained an insight into and watching the penguins dart in and out of the murky blue waters was of great fascination. There was a lot of “Mummy! Mummy! Look! Look! Look at that one! And that one! And there’s another one! Mummy look!” And when animals moved with people, looked at someone or interacted with people in some way then it was custom to speak to the animal. Coo at it. Say hello. And tell them how beautiful they were.

There was a beautiful little piece of observation that I picked on on around the penguins enclosure. I overheard one little girl talking to her mother about the penguins:

“Mum, mum look! Why do the penguins wear jewellery? I want a bracelet just like that penguin. Look, that one. Can I please get a bracelet just like that penguin?”

As an adult we can see the “bracelet” that the penguin is wearing as an identity tag for the zoo but a child sees a penguin accessory. Although I did find this quite beautiful, there is a potential market there: children seeing a “bracelet” around the wing of a penguin, interacting with the animal and developing a sense of attachment, will be swayed into wanting to appear like the animal… so, have a stall of “Penguin Bracelets” available for purchase beside the penguin enclosure. Simple plastic bands, in various colours, maybe with a fact about a penguin on it and a little penguin charm. And obviously this wouldn’t need to be specific to the penguins, there could be one for each animal enclosure: market them cheaply and advertise as a collection.


Animals that moved a lot or displayed signs of interaction drew crowds and people stayed longer watching them, whereas animals that were not interested or hiding were deemed “boring” and people moved on quickly from such enclosures.

Crowds drew in crowds. If there was a group of people clustered around an enclosure then passing people would be more likely to investigate the enclosure. A gathering of people indicated that there was something of interest in that area and other people flocked to that area as there is a perceived notion of something exciting. We walked up to the sun bear enclosure because there was a large group of people gathered at the glass area, and then the more astute people walked to the outer part of the enclosure as the keepers threw food for the bears; the people moved with the bears. We moved with the bears. We moved with the people. Mob mentality.



Another interesting observation experience was visiting the panda enclosure.

As you are guided through the enclosure in groups our design class was all grouped together. Unfortuneatley Sunshine was ill and his window was closed off, so we were all tightly clustered around Sweetie’s window.

I, like the rest of my class, was more interested in the panda than taking notes. But there was some notable observations from the encounter. As we are all of a learning/educational type and old enough to appreciate such things we all listened to the very enthusiastic zookeeper talk about the pandas and tell us facts about the two animals.There was a lot of excited chatter filling the small room and oooing and ahhing at sweetie, noise and movement among the crowd increased as Sweetie moved; although she was asleep (which is how pandas spend the majority of their day) she occasionally moved position and every person was excited by this! and there was a great mass of camera shutters clicking as she turned over or yawned. Even Johnathon was excited!

There was one design flaw that I picked up on immediately in this enclosure. As it was a relatively dark room, and made of glass, the t.v screens that displayed information about the journeys of the two pandas reflected onto the window and depending on where you stood made it really hard to either see the panda or get a good photograph of them….. Sort it out!

It was interesting watching people similar to myself interact with Sweetie and made for a captivating event.

(for more cute animal photographs head over to my other Zoo blog)


It was a really interesting and informative day. I will use these skills in the future. It’s always useful to have a problem solving mind and to be able to study aspects of humanity, if for othing else than to grasp at insights into the reality that we live in. And, well, I got see a real panda and some gorgeous animals in the dreary Scottish weather!


This doesn’t really have anything to do with this assignment, but I think it’s brilliant!


*1 Understanding Bourdieu by Webb, Schirato and Danaher


Chloe out.


Following from this post is Mecca Bingo – an ethnographic study


One thought on “Edinburgh Zoo – An ethnographic study (part 2)

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