Worlds in a Bottle: Zoos, Rainforest
 Exhibits and The Lied Jungle

3. Story Line as Ideology

by Ken Sanes

Having examined the material simulations that make up a rainforest exhibit, we will now, like visitors at Cleveland's RainForest, ascend the spiral staircase inside the artificial kapok tree and progress to the next level, examining the larger meanings or stories that artificial rainforests try to convey. Once again, if you believe the public relations for these exhibits, all this simulation is used to tell a story about nature, which faithfully portrays its subject.

But that claim also doesn't hold up under close inspection. First, there is the fact that, in order to come up with something interesting, the creators have to condense and exaggerate the most impressive features of rainforests, which is why the exhibits include the same towering rock formations, and giant buttress trees and waterfalls, displayed in ways that allow for safe and easy viewing.

In effect, these exhibits are an example of what the Italian writer and culture critic, Umberto Eco, has referred to as the realm of "hyperreality" or "absolute fakes": they are imitations that are intended to be better than the originals. To the degree that visitors think of them as accurate representations, they will come away with an image of a rainforest as a place crowded with large animals, where one can get good vistas of peaceful surroundings full of impressive landscapes and gigantic trees.

In these characteristics, artificial rainforests are a lot like the re-created places from other nations that one can find in theme parks, such as Epcot's World Showcase, featuring a (more or less) Mayan temple, German castle and Japanese pagoda, which, Disney brags, have "authentic architecture." Like the World Showcase, zoos and rainforest exhibits give visitors a condensed version of world travel in which they can see the most interesting features of natural places.

According to Jack Cover, curator of the South American Rainforest at the National Aquarium in Baltimore, Americans are often disappointed when they first see genuine rainforests precisely because they expect something similar to the unrealistic portrayals that they have seen in zoos and nature documentaries. Instead, they find themselves in places that are often inaccessible and full of navigational hazards, that typically require an investment of time and energy in which one might go for long periods without seeing large animals.

Another source of distortion can be found in the fact that rainforest exhibits create a sense of excitement in visitors through the way they deal with space and perspective. The Lied Jungle, for example, doesn't merely display a rainforest; it takes visitors on a kind of walking roller coaster ride in which they gaze down at impressive panoramas of the jungle from various vantage points; travel through caves; and experience what it is like to be immersed in the jungle, looking up at its towering features.

Of course, we can't very well criticize rainforest exhibits for these characteristics. We wouldn't expect them to create displays full of obstructed views and monotonous landscapes, in the service of realism.

But an increasing number of exhibits portray something that is unlike nature in another sense: under constant pressure to be entertaining, they are incorporating themed environments based on fantasy that have little to do with the natural world. In essence, these attractions, even though they are the handiwork of nonprofit institutions, find themselves in the same circumstances as television and theme parks: they have to attract an audience that will help keep the enterprise afloat financially and justify its existence. And, like television and theme parks, they are trying to win that audience with ever more spectacular displays and excursions into fantasy. The result is the growing numbers of those simulated ruins, suspension bridges, vines that hang over pathways and other popular fantasy elements commonly found in television and movies, which are, supposedly, the sugar that coats the pill of educational value.

Indeed it can be argued that the decision to display rainforests is, itself, primarily motivated by a desire to entertain the public and draw large numbers of visitors. rainforests, after all, are the most visually complex of all large natural environments (except for aquariums, which will be described later). And many people have connotations to them as places of mystery, which can be traced back, at least, to colonial fantasies in which Africa, for example, appears as the "dark continent," a place of secrets that resists the encroachments of civilization.

Those fantasies found expression in dozens of movies about Tarzan and, more recently, about Indiana Jones, that often portray safaris in search of lost cities and treasures in the jungle. Those movies, in turn, have shaped our view of rainforests. Now, many zoos are creating rainforest exhibits modeled after the movies.

What we are seeing, then, is a second order simulation that is both a re-creation of a rainforest and of the fictionalized images we have of rainforests. Indeed, if one were so inclined, one could match movies and rainforest exhibits, fake ruin for fake ruin, suspension bridge for suspension bridge, vine for vine, and discover striking similarities.

Another indication of the central place of fantasy and entertainment can be seen in the fact that the Larson Company, which is the most important designer and fabricator of imitation naturescapes, frequently describes these exhibits as containing story lines and "adventures," which is the way Disney describes its own attractions. Larson's concept report for a rainforest at the Houston Museum of Natural Science says: "The visitors will follow a sequence of adventures as the mysteries of this unusual place unfold."

Its concept report for the Cleveland RainForst refers to the "exhibit story line" and describes the display of the destruction of the rainforest, referred to earlier, in terms right out of Disney: "The imminent destruction of the rainforest becomes a reality to visitors through a 'time-travel' machine which shows the current destruction of the rainforest and how it will look several years into the future, if this trend continues."

When I first read those references, I thought they were industry PR, designed to impress the clients by making the product sound as exciting as possible. But in interviewing a Larson executive, he too repeatedly referred to the "story line" of the exhibits. So, despite all the educational wrapping and references to realism, the Larson Company conceives of these places in the same way Disney conceives of attractions such as Pirates of the Caribbean and the Haunted Mansion: as environments full of sensory simulations that tell stories, in which fantasy is a dominant element.

In terms of the traditional categories of storytelling, these places are still mostly setting, of course, presenting audiences with ideal landscapes and romanticized visions, which inevitably symbolize the eternal feminine, giving us some variation on Mother Nature's mystery and bounty. They portray the rainforest as both an untamed wilderness full of secrets and a garden paradise, in which invisible barriers create the illusion that the predator is lying down with its prey.

But zoos and rainforest exhibits are increasingly adding characters and plots, as well as creating Disney-style participatory "adventures" that draw the visitor into the story. A rainforest exhibit called Amazonia at the National Zoological Park in Washington D.C., for example, has invented a fictitious naturalist named Dr. Brasil, allowing visitors to see a mock-up of his office and displaying information signs in the exhibit that look like open field books of his notes. Similarly, Zoo Atlanta (although not in a rainforest exhibit) routinely puts on a show in which a costumed actor, playing a game warden, pretends to arrest a poacher. Visitors are invited to act as jury and listen to each side justify its actions.

The effort to draw visitors into a story may have gone farthest at the Lied Jungle where we have seen how visitors go on a kind of manufactured safari, pushing away those hanging vines and crossing that swaying suspension bridge, which looks like it is connected only to a rock at one end and a decaying tree stump on another. Perhaps the climax of the story is the journey up to the fabricated ledge at "Danger Point," where visitors can look out at the artificial rainforest.

Compare all of this to the Indiana Jones Adventure in Disneyland in which visitors walk through what looks like an underground maze, and then go on a ride where they encounter walls of skulls and get stuck on a bridge over bubbling lava. The Indiana Jones Adventure is advertised as a form of entertainment, while the Lied Jungle is supposed to be, as the director of the zoo puts it, "a giant classroom." But both look, equally, like Disney-style "adventures."

At first glance, it would seem that all this fantasy and entertainment would undercut the messages of environmental destruction that frame these attractions. After all, if what is being portrayed isn't a rainforest in danger of being destroyed, but merely the zoo's playful rendering of Never-Never Land, then the message would seem a little pointless.

But those messages of ecological collapse are, themselves, a part of the story, giving it an essential element: a plot with a compelling danger and a sense of urgency. They turn a static nature display into an absorbing story of a kind that has become popular in much of the culture, about innocent nature, forming ideal and harmonious ecosystems, that is being destroyed by the evil intruder, humanity. Visitors are invited to play the heroes of the story and help save nature, by becoming involved in environmental issues and by donating money, dropping their spare change into converted parking meters that can be found in some rainforest exhibits.

What we see in places like the Lied Jungle, than, is a form of political theater rather than "a giant classroom." It represents the blending of two story lines, that of going on safari and of saving nature. In essence, it turns visitors into ecotourists on an educational trip through the jungle. Visitors go inside a Tarzan set; walk on a platform as if they are in a treehouse; push away vines as if they are forcing their way into the jungle; see a variation on Cheetah swinging through the trees; get a socially relevant message in which they learn valuable lessons about nature and the dangers facing the rainforest; and are invited to help solve the problem, so they can feel as if they have been involved in a kind of social activism.

In these characteristics, the Lied Jungle still hasn't strayed so far from Disney, which many accuse of being the ultimate form of political theater, for corporate America. As has been noted before, Disney idealizes America and progress. The Lied Jungle idealizes the rainforest. Both provide a distorted view of their subject.

As one might well predict, Disney is now keeping up with the times and adopting the story line found in rainforest exhibits. In the Disney movie, Pocahontas, for example, (and, perhaps in a zoo that is planned for Disney World), it provides a depiction of innocent nature threatened by a rapacious humanity.

One can also see this same environmental plot line in other products of the entertainment industry. The virtual reality attraction, the Loch Ness Expedition, in the Foxwoods Resort Casino, in Connecticut, for example, has three small theaters decked out like a miniature submarines, that can hold six audience members each. Through the magic of 3D images (seen with 3D glasses) on a screen that is supposedly a window into Loch Ness, they act as the crew and try to save the eggs of the benevolent monster from malevolent poachers, so the species won't become extinct.

Here, the natural environment that is portrayed consists of computer images pretending to be a three-dimensional environment rather than a fabricated landscape. And the species being saved may or may not exist, and certainly doesn't exist in the form in which it is portrayed. There is nothing vaguely like nature, here, but the ecological story line is the same as those found in places like the Lied Jungle, allowing the audience to enjoy the same sense of adventure and social activism. The technique -- immersion in a simulated environment -- is similar, as well.

It is clear that what we see in attractions such as the Loch Ness Expedition and the Lied Jungle are characteristics commonly associated with traditional romance stories, such as those found in fairy tales and myths, in which heroes are portrayed as going on journeys to fantastic places on a quest and encountering various wonders and dangers along the way. But in these attractions, advanced forms of art and technology have been used to turn the audience into the hero.

This kind of romance story is now an essential feature of popular culture, characterizing most of the science fiction and adventures produced by the entertainment industry. With increasing frequency, it tells us what may be the myth of the age, in which we save some element of the world from humanity's evil plans.

When we look at another natural environment that nonprofit institutions have decided to simulate with enormous displays, namely aquariums, we see many of these same characteristics. Aquariums have a different history than zoos. Because they take up less space and exert a great fascination for many people, they have frequently appeared in urban settings as tourist draws. But they are, in essence, aquatic zoos and have many of the same visual elements.

Like zoos, aquariums offer visitors an opportunity to transcend the limits of everyday life by going to exotic places full of mystery, a prospect they frequently play up in advertising. And, like zoos, they take visitors on a kind of walking roller coaster ride through a visually rich environment full of shapes and colors.

In place of all those smaller displays of animals that make up the larger part of most zoos, aquariums offer a series of tanks along internal walkways. And in place of the giant rainforest exhibit, they offer a central tank with massive artificial coral reefs, patrolled by the great crowd pleaser of television and movies, and the villain in most aquarium dramas: the shark.

Aquariums are also similar to rainforest exhibits in another way: their central tanks are now being turned into immersive environments with transparent walk-through tubes that cross the bottom. As in rainforest exhibits, these go as far as they can to create the illusion that visitors are inside the natural environment being displayed, while keeping them safely outside it.

Just as one would predict, as zoos look for new and ever-more spectacular environments to simulate, they are being drawn to aquariums. The Lied Jungle, for example, having created the ultimate fantasy rainforest, has opened a giant aquarium with a walk-through zigzagging tube that, it claims, gives visitors "the sensation of walking on an ocean bottom." In essence, then, zoos and aquariums have the same characteristics although many aquariums don't have a political message or explicit narrative.

When we look at another educational institution -- science museums -- we, once again, see many of these same characteristics. Like zoos, science museums have to compete with television, movies and theme parks. As a result, they have abandoned many of their static displays in favor of fantasy environments, games, giant Imax theaters, interactive exhibits -- anything that moves and can hold the attention of the television generation.

Some are also creating their own participatory attractions that turn visitors into a character in a story. An exhibit at the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History, for example, invites visitors to play Columbo and solve a fictitious crime. Visitors come upon a simulated murder scene, with a manikin for a corpse, in a setting that is a re-creation of a diner and an alley. Their task is to look for clues and use techniques of crime-solving to figure out both what happened and who the perpetrator is. According to the museum, the exhibit "allows visitors to use their powers of observation to solve a crime, while exploring scientific principles, methods, and technologies employed by criminal investigators."

Even more than in the rainforests, everything about the exhibit exudes movies and television, starting with the exhibit name: "Whodunit? The Science of Solving Crime." Not surprisingly, the first line of the museum press release begins with references to well-known mystery stories: "From Sherlock Holmes to Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys to Columbo, the chance to solve a crime has stirred the imagination of children and adults for generations."

Like the Lied Jungle, "Whodunit?" is a form of entertainment: a Disneylike participatory adventure that is labeled as a learning experience. The entertainment is, once again, supposed to be the sugar coating for the pill of education. But it looks mostly like a sugar pill.

None of this means these institutions lack value or are corrupted beyond redemption, of course. Good aquariums and zoos provide fascinating sights, and a visual and sensory education about the world and its elements. And zoos certainly have a role in educating the public about environmental destruction. Similarly, children may learn something from exhibits such as "Whodunit?" or from digging for dinosaur bones, which is another participatory exhibit offered by the same museum.

But these exhibits of artificial nature reveal a good deal about the strengths and limitations of simulation culture, which, here, can be seen transforming the field of education. Like much else we will examine, they offer visitors a taste of freedom from the constraints of life, in the form of magnificent visual displays and instant travel to inaccessible places; they create images modeled after what is real and imaginary; they simplify and exaggerate; they draw visitors into stories and, increasingly, they turn education into an entertainment product that is sold to the public.

They also do something else, which could turn out to be very insidious: they present visitors with an ambiguous object of perception that blurs the boundary between simulation and "reality." They do so by creating a physical environment that is both authentic and unreal at the same time, with imitations that look genuine; with efforts to monitor and control nature that turn it into something artificial, and with the seamless interweaving of nature and fabrications. They bring about this same blurring of the boundary at the level of narrative, in the way they weave together fact and fiction, giving us stories about rainforests that are like ecologically correct jungle movies and a story about the science of crime detection that is more like Columbo. In effect, it isn't only the images of movies and TV that have escaped into everyday life but the narratives, as well, as we become a society whose primary vision seems to be television.

There may be no easy way that zoos can extricate themselves from some of these contradictions, at least not if they want to compete for the audiences that keep them in business. But at least it would make sense for them to reveal to visitors the degree to which they use artifice and technology -- and elements of fantasy -- to create their displays. That means visitors would be given the same information revealing the techniques of simulation that I, as a writer, was able to get, so they will understand how these places produce their effects. There is also a danger in this, of course: like Disney, zoos could end up turning the fabrication of the exhibit into a part of the show, in a way that simplifies, exaggerates and idealizes it, to the point where it becomes just another form of theater.

Nevertheless, letting visitors in on these techniques would move zoos away from a model in which they manipulate the public and more toward genuinely educating the public, not only about nature but about the new role of simulation in contemporary life. Stage magicians may not want to reveal their trade secrets but there isn't any reason zoos should follow the same imperative.

Such a tour would be instructive for another reason: artificial nature is starting to change our everyday surroundings. There are already innumerable examples of this process at work. The Larson Company, for example, now produces cellular telephone polls disguised as trees, and utility boxes disguised as rock outcroppings, which are intended to protect neighborhoods and developments from "visual pollution." According to a spokesperson for Larson, there are now some 25 to 30 of the company's faux trees around the United States.

A prototype, sitting on Larson's property, has a bird that has chosen it as a nest site, the spokesperson adds. Like us, it either doesn't know or doesn't care that it is nesting in unreality.

Another example of the way simulations of nature are appearing in everyday life can be found in pet stores. If you go into many pet stores and examine the aquarium supplies and habitats for reptiles and amphibians, you will see the components of JungleWorld all over again, in miniature. A random trip to a pet store revealed a complete selection of plastic plants, fake ledges, bridges, tiny Grecian urns and more imitation ruins, allowing consumers to have their own exotic world inside their homes. Similarly, the heated basking rocks that can be found in zoos, which are placed near viewing areas so animals will sit where visitors can see them, can also be found in pet stories, in miniature, so your pet lizard can bask on his own, toasty, fabricated rock in your home imitation naturescape, in comfort.

A Rhode Island company even manufactures synthetic river environments that convert an empty fish tank into a miniature Lied Jungle, with land areas made of pressed plastic and a river system that includes a waterfall and one or more rapids. It can be stocked with small plants, reptiles and amphibians, along with fish that can be seen swimming up the rapids.

Finn Strong, who owns the company, says he may one day create a larger version of these environments in airports and hotels. So, here too, variations on the Lied Jungle might be popping up in our everyday surroundings.

But one has to wonder where all these developments will lead us. The artificial trees, which are fascinating works of fabrication in zoo exhibits, seem to be a disturbing presence when they are "planted' in public spaces. The vision of Roger Vick, curator of the Deonian Botanic Garden in Alberta, who believes our yards and parks will one day be covered with artificial landscapes -- "decorscapes" -- with imitation buds programmed to open at certain times, is no pleasure to contemplate, except in science fiction.*

At the same time, it has to be said that the ability to create enclosed public parks, with genuine plants and trees and, perhaps, some artificial rockwork, would seem to offer an advance for many places where inclement weather keeps people shut inside. A rare example is Edinborough Park, in the City of Edina in suburban Minneapolis/St. Paul, which encloses a large park with genuine trees and plantings under a glass roof, with pathways, benches and park lights designed to look like street lamps.

Unfortunately, right now, our society is very good at creating artificial nature in zoos and theme parks. We are also very good at setting up and tending to genuine nature in outdoor parks. The idea of creating indoor parks with genuine nature doesn't seem to have a following.

But theses issues aren't only important because artificial nature is beginning to play a larger role in our surroundings. As alluded to earlier, they are also significant because they are an example of a larger change that is taking place in many places, in which simulation is being used to re-create not only our surroundings but our culture. Most elements of popular culture, including theme parks, malls, movies, television, video games, news, politics and advertising, are a variation on the Lied Jungle: they are complex simulations that give invented places and people and situations an objective form in a way that lets us play out our fears and desires. As we will see, all use some variation on fabricated environments, animatronic figures, theatrical performances, rides and electronic images.

All are made possible by what some on the left refer to as instrumental reason in the form of means-ends analysis, market research, planning, and science and technology, especially computers. They have brought these elements into a remarkable new synthesis with the arts, including sculpture, painting, architecture, theater, fiction, even gardening. As a result, they are able to create something that is realistic, unreal, and seemingly better than real at the same time, which is sold to the public or used to sell something else.

Behind this society of simulation, we find new industries of culture fabricators -- "imagineers," if we want to use Disney's sanitized term for it -- who specialize in adapting images from all possible sources and giving these images a lifelike form. Since they are, sooner or later, called on to create an image of almost everything, from sincere politicians to alien landscapes, they are learning how to imitate almost everything.

The Larson Company is a good example of what we find in these industries: it designs and constructs both realistic environments and environments of fantasy, and it works for educational institutions as well as entertainment companies. As in many simulation-based companies, Merv Larson, the company founder and a pioneer in the creation of artificial nature, was originally inspired by the landscapes of Disneyland. Not surprisingly, Larson also does work for Disney.

The question is, what kind of values will shape this new age of simulation? More specifically, as we develop the ability to control and re-create nature, will we try to construct gardens or Never-Never Lands? Will we choose to enhance life or replace it? Will we build an environment full of synthetic adventures or, unlikely as this may sound, one that is conducive to peace of mind? So far, it seems that a set of values derived from the entertainment industry has the upper hand.

- - - - - -

You can go back to Part One

or to an essay on
 Disney's Animal Kingdom

There's also more on simulation at:
The Age of Simulation

1996-2011 Ken Sanes


*Note: Roger Vick, "Artificial Nature; The Synthetic Landscape of the Future," The Futurist, July/August, 1989.