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Thursday, 29 May 2014

The Great Zoo Lates Debate of 2014

Like any good Ministry article, this particular one was inspired by a pub debate amongst museum colleagues. ‘Why don’t we all plan on meeting up to go to Zoo Lates?’ suggested a friend. ‘Yes- in fact why not put it on the Ministry event listings?’ A hush fell over the table. ‘But- the London Zoo isn’t a museum’ said Terri with raised eyebrows. ‘Yes it is’ I retaliated fervently. ‘There are specimens and labels and everything’. But then is a botanic garden a museum? Is an aquarium? What about a museum with an aquarium in it? So began the Great Zoo Lates Debate of 2014...

Taking advantage of Terri’s temporary absence, I (Kristin) would like to argue that zoos are, in fact, museums and that Zoo Lates deserves a coveted spot on the Ministry listings. There are many factors to be considered when trying to answer this particular conundrum. Most obviously: what is a museum? Does the very definition of a museum imply that the objects looked after by that institution are inanimate? 

ICON defines a museum as - a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment.

The Museums Association provides a somewhat more theoretical approach to defining a museum: Museums enable people to explore collections for inspiration, learning and enjoyment. They are institutions that collect, safeguard and make accessible artefacts and specimens, which they hold in trust for society.

Dead animals welcome
It seems to me that a zoo and indeed a botanical garden would fit very easily into these definitions. Nowhere does it mention that people need to be inspired by dusty things on shelves. I am arguably more inspired by an actual pygmy hippo than the skull of one. And yet on the Museums Association site, zoos and botanical gardens are not listed as a type of museum alongside royal palaces or university museums. It would have been interesting to see if any zoos are included in the MA’s directory, but I’m not a subscriber so I couldn’t really say.

But what is a museum practically, more than just an institution that collects and displays. Does a museum need labels? Does it need a catalogue? A system of classification? How about a mission statement? The ZSL London Zoo is a charity, with a mission statement which collects and displays (living) specimens. The website even includes a section on it's 'exhibits'. It certainly seems to have the making of a museum.

Makes you reconsider your object handling training, no?
Over in America, the American Association of Museums seems to take a broader minded approach and has indeed credited a number of zoos as museums, including the famous San Diego Zoo. Calling itself a ‘Living Museum’ the San Diego Zoo has achieved the title of ‘museum’ by bringing its documentation up to snuff with AAM standards. That means defining discrete collections, annual audits, ethical policies, and even location tagging every plant in their garden.

A red panda at San Diego Zoo is exhausted waiting for his accession number to come through.
Maybe what distinguished the ZSL London Zoo and the ‘Living Museum’ of San Diego is really the standard of paperwork. But does a museum have to be accredited to be a museum? Oh no- here we go again. Let’s just say for its collections of fascinating animals and plants from around the world, Zoo Lates have earned their place on the schedule!

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