Zoo Archaeology

My good friend and sometime partner-in-archaeocrime, Cornelius Holtorf,  is one of the key advocates of zoo archaeology. I’m not talking about ‘zooarchaeology’: the study of faunal remains and what they tell us about past human societies. Zoo archaeology in the sense of the study of the material culture, architectures and landscapes of zoological gardens.

Incidentally, I first met Cornelius way back in 1997 when I organised my first-ever TAG session at Bournemouth. (Incidentally TAG is back in Bournemouth this December). I was lucky that my co-edited volume of World Archaeology that resulted from that TAG session included a great paper on the biography of megalithic monuments by the great Holtorf, then just finishing his PhD at Lampeter. Later, Cornelius generously invited me to co-author with him a paper published in 2006 on archaeology and memory in the Cambridge Companion to Historical Archaeology. Subsequently, we co-authored a paper together on zoo archaeology, but we haven’t gotten around to refining it and getting it published.

One of Cornelius’ other interests is zoos. A few years back, there was a special issue of the International Journal of Heritage Studies dedicated to ‘Zoos as heritage’ in which Cornelius contributed a paper on ‘Zoos as Heritage: An Archaeological Perspective’. The entire special edition makes fascinating reading. Before this, back in 2000, Cornelius wrote a paper about the subject in the journal Public Archaeology. This is a fascinating interdisciplinary research area that considers the history of zoological gardens and their relationship with other kinds of designed landscapes and collecting practices, but also to zoological gardens as heritage, in which many archaeological themes find a place.

Chester Zoo

I am a regular visitor to Chester zoo, and after a hiatus for the summer when the zoo is too crowded, I have been back four times over the last few weeks with my three eldest offspring. Therefore, I feel I can claim to know this zoo very well, certainly more than perhaps any other zoo in the country and I have been a regular visitor over the last five years since moving to the Chester region.

There are many interesting things to say about Chester zoo from an archaeologist’s perspective. It is a zoo with a deep history of its own and has many stages of development. It is also a landscape in which many different places and pasts are invoked and in doing so all manner of material cultures are mobilised to create hyper-real environments for engaging with animals. In this post, I want to talk about only one aspect of Chester zoo’s archaeology that I don’t think has received a lot of attention in the ‘zoo archaeology’ literature: animatronics. There are plenty of static animal sculptures around the zoo and these are themselves worthy of detailed discussion. There is even a Roman garden.

Yet Chester zoo’s animatronic beasts are a specialist medium by which the public engage with past and present; between living animals and sculpture, messing with scale and time to bring the public close to things normal enclosures cannot. Bringing the dead back to life and proximity to things otherwise unapproachable.

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Me and my daughter confronting Tyrannosaurus in July 2011
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Dimetrodon in 2011

Dinosaur Animatronics

Over the last two summers, 2011 and 2012, Chester zoo has had special exhibits of animatronic dinosaurs. In 2011, these included classics predators like Tryrannosaurus Rex, Allosaurus, Rugops, Baryonyx and Dilophosaurus as well as a range of herbivores such as Triceratops and Tri-baby, Apatosaurus senior and junior, Omeisaurus and Edmontosaurus (with babies). There was also a Permian pre-dinosaur: Dimetrodon, his torso exposed to show how we worked. The dinosaurs do various things, but mainly they simply move and roar regularly. Dilophosaurus and Baryonyx were the most popular because they also spat water over the visitors. Dimetrodon could be moved by a control panel by visitors themselves.

In 2012, the same arrangement was repeated, but with different dinosaurs. T-Rex was still the finale but was joined by a kiddie-T-Rex. Dilophosaurus got a paint-job and appeared in a different location, also together with a baby Dilo to back it up in spitting water. There was a Megalosaurus and a pair of Coelophysus or something similar. And Deinonychus eating a dead Parry (Parasaurolophus). A new feature was a ptersaur – Queztlcoatlus. There were new herbivores too. Omeisaurus had a knob stuck on its head to become Brachiosaurus, and there was Stegasaurus, Edmontonia, Styracosaurus with its babies, Parasaurolophus (Edmontosaurus from 2011 reconfigured) and Pachycephalosaurus. There was also a T-Rex you could move yourself using controls and another you could climb on and pose for pictures: a new way of engaging with the dinos. In both 2011 and 2012 there was an activity area where talks and dino-stories were told throughout the day.

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Watching dinos eat, 2012
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Photo opportunities with a T-rex, 2012

The exhibits were central to the zoo within the same garden space, and the winding paths took you from outside the ‘Islands in Danger’ building to the shop where many toy dinosaurs can be purchased. The zoo monorail went over the dinosaur enclosure, so those paying extra for the train could get to see the dinosaurs from a bird’s eye perspective.

Individually, and collectively as an exhibit, these animatronic dinosaurs provided a rich, fascinating educational experience in natural history that were overtly connected to modern themes of conservation and endangered species and the threat of extinction; many might go the same way as the dinosaurs if we don’t act. The breadth and depth of experience to the visitor cannot be  understimated, something impossible in the more limited space of indoor museum exhibits. While dealing with a deep past far earlier than the human species, this is a fascinating use of material culture to mediate past and present in relation to contemporary zoo conservation agenda and concerns.

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Tarantula experience, 2013
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Mantis mayehm with Halloween pumpkins

A Bug’s Life

From this summer, ending on 3 November, Chester zoo has moved on from past beasts to beasts of our time enlarged to gigantic, monstrous, proportions. These animatronic bug gigantisms are far more scary than dinosaurs for me, although the locations and formula is near identical to the 2011 and 2012 dino-displays. You move past ants, a bombardier beetle squirting water, a dragonfly, a mantis, firefly you can light up by spinning a wheel, a spider moving on a web (arrghhggh!), stag beetle, moth, scorpion, grasshopper bee and ladybird close to the activity area before coming face-to-face with a giant tarantula before reaching the safety of the gift shop. For those too horrified to continue, there are exit points along the way that allow you to flee.

Animatronic Engagements

So what does this tell us about the modern heritage of the zoo? Well, for many visitors, these special exhibits are a ‘draw’ more than live, real, endangered animals. Fantasy is better than reality? Managed fear sells to families? Imagined pasts, or imaginary scales, create the fascination of the exotic, gruesome and the beastly? These near-theatrical engagements with non-live animals draw more interest than the fish, birds, camels and cheetahs wandering about their enclosures. Perhaps only a few particularly active or iconic species have a comparable draw; lions and penguins among them. For my kids at least, the static sculpture and the animatronics foster more time and interactive play than the real animals they observe. I don’t think they are unique.

So does this threaten or detract from the core values of zoological gardens and their conservation programmes and the experience of meeting real species threatended in the wild? Or does this time travel and imagined intimate proximities to fearful creates living in different times and in different scales serve to deepen and further those goals? Does it create other values and goals for the zoo beyond conservation? Is this bald experience entertainment or something more? It is certainly clear that animatronics is a key ingredient to how zoos attract visitors and spark the imaginations of those visitors.

Useful References

Holtorf, C. 2000. Sculptures in captivity and monkeys on megaliths: observations on zoo archaeology, Public Archaeology 1(3): 195-210.

Holtorf, C. 2008. Zoos as heritage: an archaeological perspective, International Journal of Heritage Studies, 14(1): 3-9.

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