Document: Life Support; A guide to keeping museum exhibitions alive

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In November 2011 at a conference in Perth, I presented a paper on what should be considered when developing a living display.

So much feedback was provided from other animal keepers that it exceeded the word limit and so many good points did not make it in to the submitted conference paper. This is the extended version which may be of use to anyone planning to develop a live display.

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Chris Hosking
© Australian Museum


The exhibition of live animals and plants has long been established as an effective method of interpreting biological themes in natural history museums. Although many visitors still seem surprised to find live animals in the museum, they are none the less excited by them and there does seem to be an added thrill associated with finding signs of life amongst the otherwise lifeless museum.

While the interpretive and exhibition value of live exhibits is clear, thought and effort are required to keep animals properly and maintain healthy museums. Museums can be a challenging, and even hostile, environment for some animals and some invertebrates can pose a threat to the museum?s collection.

Displaying live plants and animals outside of the traditional settings (botanic gardens, aquariums and zoos) presents both opportunities and challenges. There is a long list of considerations that museum managers, exhibition planners and animal keepers need to consider before, during and after the development of live exhibits. These range from designing enclosures that provide the very basic biological needs of the animal through to workplace safety and collection integrity considerations.

It is reasonable to say that live exhibits will continue to be developed in museums in the future, perhaps in greater number, and exhibit design should be informed by past experiences and current knowledge to drive it forward in a rewarding and effective direction. This paper will consider design lessons learned in zoos as well as investigate the challenges and opportunities encountered supporting life in a museum.

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