Why have live animals in a Museum?

Live exhibits help us in our mission to inspire the exploration of nature and cultures

Live Displays in My Photo Studio

Live Displays in My Photo Studio
Photographer: James King © Australian Museum

Live animals are the most effective way to communicate animal behavior to Museum Visitors. Unlike models, videos and preserved specimens; a live animal can demonstrate exactly how it feeds, seeks shelter, regulates its body’s temperature and reproduces.

In addition to simply having live animals on display as part of exhibitions, live animals are great in presentations and for communicating biological processes, especially if the animal, such as a Bearded Dragon or Diamond Python is in the presenters hands and the audience can touch. Live animals offer multi-sensory experiences as they can be seen, heard, smelt and touched (this is a useful approach when presenting programs for visitors who may not be able to fully see or hear from other forms of museum interpretation).

Live animals have also provide useful learning experience for organised workshops where participants can learn about animal adaptations and life cycles. Often people do not expect to find live animals in a museum, this surprise acts to encourage active learning. For example, staff working at the information desk in Search & Discover, the Museums inforamtion centre, have live stick insects nearby; people enter the space quietly exploring, until they see un-expected movement which creates a cascade of interpretive reactions; is it alive? What is it? What are they doing?  Museum visitors want to find “the real thing” in museums in the forms of authentic specimens and knowledge and live animals certainly qualify as “the real thing”.

Live exhibits have high “holding power”. People tend to spend much longer in front of live displays than those without. An evaluation by the Australian Museum Audience Research Centre of the Spiders! Exhibition in 1997 tracked thirty-three visitors through the exhibition. Of the total number of stops actually made 12% were at the live exhibits. When the exhibits were placed in order according to the number of stops made, there were four live exhibits ranked among the top twenty.

Live animals capture the curiosity and attention of the visitors and are generally not expected in the museum context. This adds a further level of mystique to their presence. For example in Surviving Australia many visitors encounter the live Diamond Python, while it is asleep or otherwise not moving during the day and will typically assume the animal is a moddead and set in a diorama. Visitors have a mindset when visiting a museum and expect to see static displays, therefore they see what they expect to see, that is until the animal moves. The surprise this creates for the visitor is a memorable experience, something that museum users will retain much longer than anything they see, hear or touch.

Live animals also receive mainly positive responses in Museums; when visitors to the Australian Museum’s Bats exhibition in 2000, were asked the question “Did you think it was important to have live bats in the exhibition?” a staggering 97% of those surveyed answered yes. This result, in conjunction with the rest of the evaluation, established that live bats were a key attraction of the exhibition.

Who is audience for live animal displays?

Exhibitions and programs featuring live animals have a wide audience demographic; people from all backgrounds, sexes and age groups enjoy engaging with living things. Although people may, at first, be surprised to see live animals in a museum, visitors use the presence of a living animal as a way to discuss and ask questions, which leads to more informal learning about natural history topics.

The majority of people’s responses to live animals are unlike that of any other interpretive device; the response is emotional, either negative (fear or disgust) or positive (fascination and amazement), with very few people being non-reactive. This kind of connection to a message in a museum should not be overlooked, nor wasted, as feelings will stay with people longer than facts and information.

Live animals are also great bridging points between age groups; children are often found alerting parents and other adults to the presence of a live animal and the phrase “Its Alive!” are is repeated again and again. The opposite of this scenario occurs frequently as well; with parents pointing out the presence and activity of a live animal. Either way, the use of live animals in a display provoke reaction and discussion between visitors, which is an important part of the visit, given that few people experience museums alone.

The need to share information and discuss the natural history of any animal or region is a significant positive outcome for a museum display. Whether the visitor is 3 or 93, seeing something that is ‘real’, different from the day to day, and was not expected from the visit, creates an atmosphere of wonderment and discovery - a great outcome for any museum.


  • Driscoll, M. 1995. “Butterflies! Live (the Hard Part) and in Color,” Exhibitionist. 14(2), 28-30.
  • Hubbell Mackinney, L. 1996. To See ‘Em Live Brings ‘Em More Into Memory: Front-End Interviews About Invertebrates with Visitors to the California Academy of Sciences. California Academy of Sciences.
  • Iliff, W. J. 1981. A Storefront Insect Zoo. Curator, 24(2), 109-115.
  • Kelly, K. 1999. Museums and Insects: a productive partnership. Extract from paper delivered at Australian Entomological Society Conference.
  • Kelly, L. 1999. Finding Evidence of Visitor Learning. Paper presented at Musing on Learning Seminar, Australian Museum.
  • Kelly, L. 2007.Live animals in exhibitions. Excerpts from two evaluation reports that looked at visitors' interests in live animals in exhibitions - Spiders! (1996, 1998) and Bats (1998). Australian Museum Audience Research Centre.
  • Masters, S. 2003. The Use of Live Animals in Museum Exhibitions. In Kelly, L. and Barrett, J. (Eds) UNCOVER Volume 1. Proceedings of the Uncover: Graduate Research in the Museum Sector Conference 2002. Sydney: Australian Museum.
  • Matthews, R. W., Flage, L. R. and Matthews, J. R. 1997. Insects as Teaching Tools in Primary and Secondary Education. Annual Review of Entomology, 42, 269-289.
  • Peithman, R. I. 1975. Live Animals in Museums. Curator, 18(2), 109-114.
  • Romer, L. and Christidis. 2008. Natural History Museums, Zoos and Aquariums – Making the Most of our
    Animal Collections. ARAZPA Conference proceedings
  • Simpkin, L. 2007. There's Life in the Museum. ARAZPA Conference proceedings.
  • Simpkin, L. 2008. Keeping Bugs Alive alive. ARAZPA Conference proceedings.

Chris Hosking , Interpretive Officer
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