Creating Serendipitous Experiences That Have An Impact: A Conversation with Sue Chin, Vice President

Unlike most other institutions who hire design firms, the four zoos and one aquarium under the Wildlife Conservation Society have their own design department responsible for all their exhibits and graphics. The Exhibition and Graphic Arts Department (EGAD), particularly at the Bronx Zoo, has designed many ground-breaking immersive habitats recreating the natural environment of its animals. No other institution has won the Exhibit Award from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums as many times as the Bronx Zoo. Currently EGAD is headed by Sue Chin, one of the most well respected zoo designers in history. Along with John Gwynne and Lee Ehmke (her partner for nearly two decades), she and the EGAD team have been responsible for many of the incredible exhibits at the Bronx Zoo. This is her story.

@ WCS

Chin believes the way something is designed is crucial to how much a zoo visit impacts the visitor. “A holistic design vision is necessary to make sure that we use every tool we have to create powerful exhibits,” she reflected. “All design decisions can reinforce or detract from the story and experience whether it’s the choice of materials, the topography, the planting, a soundscape or a photo of illustration. Our exhibits are choreographed to tell a story and create an emotional arc to engage visitors. We introduce visitors to interesting animals and unfamiliar habitats and cultivate an emotional bond with an animal so that there is a basis of understanding when we later explain the specific threats facing that animal.”

@ Grayson Ponti

“We want to create things that have impact,” Sue Chin elaborated. The Wildlife Conservation Society takes the principles of immersive habitat design and engaging the public in the plight of animals in the wild very seriously. “To inspire and engage visitors, we need to create exhibits that deliver on affective and cognitive experience as well as personal relevance,” Chin stated. “The sweet spot is when you integrate all three into an exhibit. If it’s not engaging or relevant, visitors are not going to have a meaningful experience.”

Julie Larsen Maher @ WCS

Sue Chin grew up visiting the Bronx Zoo. She started working part-time at the zoo as a teenager. However, her first foray into design was when she got an opportunity to work on Baboon Reserve, an award-winning exhibit that was the largest habitat for primates in the nation when it opened in 1990. “How many architects get to design mud huts in New York City? That was my first job!” Chin remembered. “We incorporated necessary programs such as a shop, restaurant and classroom in the context of the exhibit environment. I was lucky enough to work on every aspect of the architecture and even got to paint the mud huts! It was an amazing learning experience.” While initially she had no intention of doing zoo design, she has stayed with the department ever since.

@ WCS

At the time, all the Wildlife Conservation Society’s design projects were supervised by legendary designer John Gwynne. Gwynne became famous in the zoo industry when he helped design the groundbreaking JungleWorld, the Bronx Zoo’s exceptional indoor representation of a Southeast Asian rainforest. Both Chin and her partner Lee Ehmke learned a lot from Gwynne. “John was our mentor,” Chin remarked. “John was a wonderful collaborator and teacher. I learned a lot about landscape and exhibit design from him.”

Dennis Demello @ WCS

While working on the Bronx Zoo’s signature exhibit Congo Gorilla Forest, Sue Chin learned a lot about the many aspects of exhibit design from architecture to interactive and graphic design and landscape design and most importantly how all these elements integrate to create a powerful exhibit experience. She went on to use this knowledge in the next big project, the award-winning Tiger Mountain. “Tiger Mountain has a special place in my heart because I feel I had a strong lead role in design and project management,” Chin claimed. While she was a lead designer, she credited the design team as essential to its success.

@ Grayson Ponti

@ Grayson Ponti

Opened in 2003, Tiger Mountain recreated the forests of Siberia and let guests get up close to the powerful Amur tigers. There are no barriers anywhere and it feels like an endless forest. “Tiger Mountain was an opportunity to show people how much work we put into caring for tigers here at the Bronx Zoo and through our conservation efforts in the wild,” Chin elaborated. “It shows different types of behavioral enrichment and why it’s important to the health and well-being of the animals.”

@ WCS

@ WCS

While the exhibit is full of enrichment for the tigers to use, it is put in the context of the natural habitat. “We designed activities that recreate a tiger’s behavior in the wild,” Sue Chin explained. “For instance, we designed a pull toy that mimics the physical action of dragging prey. In the exhibit, it is a naturalistic tree stump but we recreated the mechanical guts on the public side so that visitors could test their strength against that of a tiger and see what went into designing toys for tigers.”

@ Bronx Zoo

@ Bronx Zoo

“We show the important work that keepers do to care for these animals and the field scientists do for conservation of tigers,” Chin continued. It was one of the first exhibits to include a training wall where at certain times of the day visitors can watch keepers conduct behavioral training sessions with the majestic cats. “The backdrop for this interaction is the entire habitat to show that the tigers have a choice to interact,” Chin noted.

Julie Larsen Maher @ WCS

Amur tigers will swim and there is an underwater view where lucky visitors can see a tiger in the water. “There’s a shallow kitty pool that tigers can lie in to cool down,” Chin remarked.

@ Grayson Ponti

The designer was adamant zoo habitats should be as naturalistic as possible. “We believe that the richness of context and details in our exhibits matter because they contribute to the emotional or affective qualities of our exhibits,” Sue Chin claimed. “Authenticity is important. Everyone knows that an African savanna or Asian rainforest in New York City is fabricated but the absence of that context does not support stories of natural history or conservation. We define authenticity as real, live experiences with animals. This is more and more important in our increasingly virtual world. The difference between your screen and being at the zoo is that you are physically experiencing that moment, surrounded by nature and seeing a real animal who may or may not look you in the eye! It’s serendipitous- you never know what will happen next.”

@ Bronx Zoo

Another one of Sue Chin’s major projects at the Bronx Zoo is Madagascar!, the conversion of the historic Lion House into an immersive experience of the diverse habitats of the African island and highlighting WCS’s conservation work in Madagascar. “The project was complex because it involved reusing a historic landmark, making it LEED Gold and creating an engaging exhibit experience that showcased the unique and rich biodiversity of Madagascar,” she said.

@ WCS

@ WCS

During preparation for the exhibit, Chin visited Madagascar and quickly fell in love with the nation. She took great effort in replicating the distinctive environments on the island such as the Tsingy Cliffs, Spiny Forest and Masoala Rainforest closely as possible. “We try to represent as realistically as possible, ecosystems and their species as much as we can,” remarked Chin. “WCS’ Bronx Zoo is a science-based organization and people expect that the information, visual and written, we give them is accurate.”

@ WCS

@ WCS

Another one of Chin’s projects is the snow leopard habitat at the Central Park Zoo. It was the first major addition to the zoo since it was completely rebuilt in 1988. “I love the snow leopard exhibit at the Central Park Zoo,” Chin continued. “A lot was learned from Himalayan Highlands [at the Bronx Zoo] so we took best practices and applied them to this exhibit. We show them in two different habitats: an alpine forest slope and a rocky steppe with precipitous inclines and mist. Both were designed to create high points for perching, lots of opportunities for climbing and leaping and great visitor views.”

Julie Larsen Maher @ WCS

Julie Larsen Maher @ WCS

Sue Chin’s current project is Sharks, a state-of-the-art exhibit opening at the New York Aquarium next year. In addition to telling the story of the often feared and misunderstood fish, it will help New Yorkers discover the underwater world that surrounds them them. “We’re going to show you the New York you don’t know,” Chin noted. “People don’t realize there are seahorses under the Brooklyn Bridge and migrating sharks and whales that swim right by us. Most New Yorks don’t know about the Hudson Canyon, which is an underwater canyon as tall as the Grand Canyon and filled with marine life.” The exhibit will showcase the New York Aquarium’s NY Seascape program and the science and conservation work that is going on locally.

Julie Laren Maher @ WCS

Visitors will be able to have the experience of a diver swimming through a shipwreck, with sand tiger sharks swimming above them and migrate the waters of the Atlantic Ocean. The Conservation Choices gallery will address ocean pollution and how visitors can change their behavior to help mitigate that problem. “It’s about giving visitors a sense of how their choices in everyday life such as using a reusable bag instead of a plastic one can have impact when added to everyone else making the same choice,” Chin articulated. The exhibit will also feature the East Coast Real Coast Café, a restaurant interactive found at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. “Placing an order at the Real Cost Café will educate visitors on sustainable seafood and help them make better choices at the supermarket and restaurant,” Chin explained.

@ Dreamstime

EGAD has also worked on interpretive centers all over the world. “There are many strategies in conservation,” Sue Chin stated. “Most involve scientific research and policy but education and eco-tourism can play a role. As part of an eco-tourism grant, in Rwanda we designed a visitor center to introduce tourists to Nyungwe National Park. This was an essential piece of infrastructure in creating an eco-tourism program which was important to the conservation of this park and the many species that live there.”

Julie Larsen Maher @ WCS

Now the Vice President of Planning and Design for the Wildlife Conservation Society, Sue Chin has become regarded as one of the very best in her field. She is also a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects, recognized for her work in zoo and aquarium design. “If I stopped working tomorrow, I would feel satisfied with what I have accomplished,” she concluded. “I have been lucky to work on so many great project sand see my personal and professional history intertwined with that of the Bronx Zoo, which is really cool!” Chin hopes her work will inspire future zoo innovators to follow in her footsteps. “We have to work together as a profession,” she remarked.

@ Grayson Ponti

#BronxZoo #CentralParkZoo #NewYorkAquarium

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I'm a 23-year old wildlife enthusiast, conservation and animal welfare advocate, environmental activist and zoo fanatic who aspires to work in zoo public relations or education. I am here to share some insight into the world's best zoos to show all the great things they are doing. 

 

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© 2017 by Grayson Ponti