Research Summary

How do visitors relate to biodiversity conservation? An analysis of London Zoo’s ‘BUGS’ exhibit

Using “BUGS” to Understand Biodiversity

Environmental Education Research

Zoos and aquariums have the potential to be powerful settings for environmental education. Researchers and practitioners are still learning about the visitor experience and how it can be designed to maximize achievement of key outcomes around conservation. This study considers an exhibition at the London Zoo called Biodiversity Underpinning Global Survival, or BUGS. The study’s purposes are threefold. First, the researchers investigated how the exhibition influenced conservation knowledge, beliefs, and perception of pro-environmental actions. More specifically, the researchers considered how the exhibition connected to visitors’ everyday lives and visitors’ perceptions of the concept of biodiversity. Second, the study examined visitors’ attitudes toward invertebrates, a focal group for the exhibition. Third, the study examined how pre-visit conversations with the researchers might influence, or prime, visitor learning and experiences in the exhibition.

This study used a mixed-methods approach. One of the primary tools for data collection was Personal Meaning Maps (PMM), used in the study’s third element. A total of 100 adult visitors, divided into two groups (Sample A and Sample B), were asked to complete the PMM. Sample A completed the PMM as part of pre- and post-exhibition interviews, whereas Sample B completed the PMM as post-only interviews. During the PMM interviews, researchers gave visitors the word “biodiversity” as a prompt. With that word in the middle of a blank sheet of paper, researchers asked visitors to write and draw what came to mind. Upon completion of the PMM, researchers asked visitors follow-up questions to explain their maps. Researchers supplemented the PMM with an exit questionnaire, including demographic questions and self-report data related to environmental concern. Researchers analyzed PMM results according to four dimensions: concept (the number of concepts directly related to biodiversity), elaboration (the number of words used to describe each concept, scored on a 1-to-6 scale), degree of emotion (number of emotive phrases used, positive or negative), and degree of expertise (appropriate use of vocabulary, quality of understanding, scored on a 1-to-5 scale).

The second tool for data collection was a cognitive world map. Researchers used this tool to understand how visitors think about biodiversity. For this exercise, researchers asked visitors to mark on a world map the places that first came to mind when they thought about biodiversity. Findings from the studies, overall, suggest that the exhibition improved visitors’ knowledge of and attitudes toward biodiversity. These findings, however, were only in the group that received pre-visit priming from interacting with the researchers. Without priming, the effects were small. Furthermore, the exhibition was well received by visitors, who found it to be entertaining and fascinating. Yet the researchers determined that the exhibition did not succeed in being relevant to visitors’ everyday lives, nor did it increase visitors’ confidence that they could contribute to biodiversity conservation. Visitors often perceived biodiversity as being synonymous with “exotic,” meaning that they perceived biodiversity to be a concept relevant to faraway places, leaving little room for personal action.

The Bottom Line

Many zoo exhibitions seek to bring about changes in visitor knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors related to biodiversity conservation. Those goals may be effectively achieved in two main ways: First, practitioners and educators might explore using pre-visit priming, or having conversations with visitors to spark their initial thinking about the concepts that they will encounter in the exhibition. Second, practitioners and educators should focus on connecting biodiversity and conservation concepts with visitors’ everyday lives and local ecosystems. These strategies can be paired with specific messages about meaningful individual actions that benefit the local environment.