"Frames for Nature: American Zoo Displays, 1870-1930" Elizabeth Hanson PhD., Palisades, NY.
At the turn of the twentieth century, zoological parks offered Americans a new setting in which to observe wild animals. Individual exhibits in zoos created frames that interpreted the meaning of animals on display. Some exhibits borrowed from European zoo design. Other exhibits took architectural cues from the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, and from natural history museums. This paper will focus on displays that zoo directors referred to as habitat displays, or "natural settings." American zoo directors in the first decades of the twentieth century agreed that the best way to display animals was in a "natural setting." What they sought to accomplish, however, was not to show zoo visitors the habitats of particular animals. Rather a "natural setting" was one that approximated an aesthetic ideal. "Natural settings" in zoos drew from conventions of viewing nature through tourism, popular landscape painting, and dioramas in natural history museums.
Exhibits of bears and reptiles provide examples of how zoo directors interpreted the idea of a "natural setting" and offer insight into the cultural functions of zoo displays. The first American zoo enclosures built with moats rather than bars -- bear exhibits in St. Louis and Denver -- interpreted "natural setting" to mean the meticulous reproduction of local geology to create civic monuments analogous to natural wonders of national significance, such as Niagara Falls. Taking a different approach, reptile houses borrowed from the cultural and scientific authority of a display style common in natural history museums to promote reptile appreciation and to dispel popular myths about snakes.