The Not-So-Perfect Henry Vilas Zoo

As a kid, I loved going to the zoo. What kid doesn’t, really? The institutions are basically built for children, and yet everyone, big or small, has some level of fascination for exotic animals. A few weekends ago I went to the Henry Vilas Zoo in Madison, Wisconsin. My mother had told me she was going to take my grandparents and I jumped at the chance to, in a way, revisit my childhood. I could not wait to experience that sense of wonder again. Now as an adult in museum studies, my perspective and thoughts on zoos have changed.

The Henry Villas Zoo has always boasted about its free admission. This obviously allows for people of all financial backgrounds to enjoy the zoo. The economic aspect of a Zoo is definitely not something I considered when I was little. But a zoo with an admissions price, just like an museum-like establishment, limits and makes elite the people who can visit. The Henry Villas Zoo is sure to avoid this issue as it does not even charge for parking. Free admission has its problems as well though. No admission fees mean less money for the zoo. I can remember many enclosures, such as all of the bears, which were open when I was little, that no longer exist. Donations have to be lucrative.

The Henry Vilas Zoo has other problems as well. I found handicap accessibility to be lacking. My grandpa is essentially bound to his wheelchair. I pushed him around a lot myself that day. The Henry Vilas Zoo can congratulate itself on not having any stairs, however, there are many little aesthetic hills. Pushing my grandfather up a hill is not exactly easy. If it had just been my grandma with him, there is no way she would have been able to get my grandpa everywhere. The hills are inconvenient for families with young children as well. I saw many parents pushing strollers. And while pushing a baby or toddler is no where near as strenuous as pushing a grown man, the incline is still inconvenient. Unlike at an actual museum, which is indoors, different levels can not be conquered by elevators. The problem continues though as strollers are not even allowed into some of the special houses, i.e. the primate house. (My family and I took our chances with bringing in the wheelchair, however.)

It is perhaps understandable, though, that the pathways aren’t perfect as unlike museums, zoos house, care for, and thus pay for, living animals. This creates a whole new set of issues. It was impossible not to notice how pathetic the animals’ enclosures looked. Whether the animal was small or large, their enclosure looked way too small. One of the most disturbing enclosures was the giraffes. Their enclosed space was small and the ground was completely dirt. The only interruption of the flat dust was a tall metal pole with hay at the top…not a very majestic sight. The tiger enclosure was filled with foliage. But, when we were looking at the tiger, he was just constantly pacing back in forth, clearly not happy. The experience of seeing a tiger on the prowl was exhilarating, but the limited space was not able to be overlooked. So how ethical is it really to keep animals in small cages for the amusement of little kids? Even though some animals are protected by being in the care of humans, animal sanctuaries are arguably a much more comfortable and humane place for animals.

All of the issues are things I have only considered about zoos as an adult. As a kid, the Henry Vilas Zoo was just a fun place to go to and be amazed by amazing creatures. It is maybe unfortunate that the magic of the zoo has been demystified for me. For now, though, there will still be plenty of blissfully ignorant children going to the Henry Vilas Zoo and having the time of their lives.

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English Comes in Really Handy at Museums. Yay Privilege!

I have a problem. And I’m not entirely sure how to solve it. My problem has to do with privilege, language, and of course, museums. As a native English speaker, I, along with most Americans, am extremely privileged. No matter what country I go to, there will be someone who speaks English. I will be ok not knowing the native language.

In fact, in Europe, many places, because of the large number of visiting English speakers and that English is the official language of the European Union, actually have English in menus, signs, or museum exhibits in addition to the native language. When I went to Europe this summer, I went to many museums and language was not an issue. The employees, the writings on the wall, and the audio guides made sure I had access to any information I could possibly want to know. And whether the Rijksmuseum or the DDR Museum, the websites always had an English option.

So when I visited the Stasimuseum in Berlin, I was shocked with the different experience. The museum documents the workings and experiences of the Soviet reign of East Germany after WWII, specifically the secret police called the Stasi. The museum had tiny snippets in English and I speak some German, but I had never felt so clueless in a museum before. There were entire rooms where I had no clue what they were saying. It got to the point where the museum was just plain boring. To be fair, this museum had a lot of things working against it that day, mainly that the museum, being an old building, had no air conditioning which proved to be near unbearable in 95 degree weather. But the Stasi is not something that should be remotely boring, their undercover informants hid spy cameras in purses and concealed lenses with buttons! But that museum was rough to get through. I knew there was a lot of great information that I was missing and I couldn’t do anything about it.

That experience got me thinking on what it must be like to visit a museum and not be privileged enough to understand anything about it. This only happened to me once, and even then there was some English, and it was awful. Many museums can boast about their accommodations for people who speak different languages, but of course, not all languages are included and many museums are only presented in one language. I have no research to back this up, but if I had to guess, I would say that America, as an English speaking country, probably drops the ball more often than in Europe, which has many languages crammed into one small space. I looked at multiple American museums’ websites and many of them, including the Experience Music Project, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Franklin Institute, did not have an option to choose a different language, at least, none that I could find. Some museums, like the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, are trying to make an effort to overcome language barriers. For example, the LACMA website does provide Spanish options. However, the information in Spanish is limited compared to that of the English website. Improvement is still clearly welcome as this is only one museum and it has only one language option.

It is no surprise then that the actual museums are also lacking in language accessibility. I find it disturbing how many people can not appreciate museums just because they don’t speak English.

This, unfortunately, is not all that simple of a problem to solve. It would be simple to say to just fix the website and get audio guides in different languages, but what about museums without audio guides? What about less popular languages? What about small museums that can’t afford any changes? Until this problem gets fixed, I have to say that I am very thankful to be privileged to speak English as my native language.