Business School


The problem

Custodians of cultural and zoological sites lacked reliable information about how visitors’ experiences at their sites influenced their long-term environmental behaviour. In addition, these sites required better tools to understand the visitor experience as a whole.

Impact summary

  • The research has positively influenced the environmental behaviours of over 700 million visitors to various zoos and aquariums worldwide
  • Researchers designed a 15-dimension instrument that captures visitors’ responses to their experiences at cultural and zoological sites. It is widely used and informs exhibit design and interpretive signs. Users include Shedd Aquarium, Chicago; Denver Zoo; Monterey Bay Aquarium; St Louis Science Center; and Te Papa Museum, Wellington, New Zealand.
  • Through workshops and short courses UQ researchers have raised the profile and professional standing of visitor research internationally

Influencing Behaviour 

Modern zoos and aquariums are conservation organisations that aim to positively influence visitors’ environmental awareness, attitudes and behaviour. In three ARC-funded projects from 2005-2016, UQ’s Visitor Research Team[1] developed, tested and applied a theoretical model to determine how wildlife tourism experiences influence tourists’ long-term environmental behaviour. The team then formulated strategies to enhance the pro-environmental impact of the experience for over 700 million visitors each year at sites like the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago and New York’s Bronx Zoo. The model has also guided subsequent research and provided practitioners with key data on factors that influence visitor learning.

Zoos and aquariums worldwide now use UQ research to —

  • Extend and improve the effectiveness of conservation education initiatives
  • Play a greater role in developing an environmentally literate society
  • Motivate collective action for wildlife conservation
  • Measure achievement of mission objectives
  • Improve the quality of the visitor experience

Improving the quality of interpretive techniques 

A UQ research article, Designing Interpretive Signs: Principles in Practice,[2] has guided and improved interpretive practice in parks and heritage sites around the world. For example, Canterbury Cathedral trustees invited UQ researchers to help design a Visitor Management Plan to improve the cathedral experience for its 7 million yearly visitors. In 2014, the plan formed part of an £11 million grant application to the National Lottery Heritage Fund by cathedral trustees. The grant was approved and it paid for the complete redesign the cathedral’s visitor interpretation plan as well as various renovation projects.


‘Brookfield Zoo’s current efforts in understanding and addressing our visitors’ perceptions of animal welfare are a direct result of the research Roy Ballantyne and Jan Packer conducted at our gorilla exhibit in 2011. Their study was the first time we had examined in depth our visitors’ perceptions of animal welfare. Given the significance of their original findings, we have continued the research and today we have a better understanding of our visitors’ perceptions of zoo animals. We are addressing our visitors’ concerns about animal welfare by including more information about the health and welfare of our zoo animals during formal and informal staff interactions with visitors.’ Jerry Luebke, Brookfield Zoo

‘Jan Packer and Roy Ballantyne’s research has helped to describe and contribute to the unique landscape and considerations of zoo and aquarium interpretation… our exhibit design and interpretation practice references the work to help position and define our own efforts at WCS broadly, as well as in particular projects.’ Sarah Hezel, Wildlife Conservation Society

‘The research revealed the factors that influenced visitors. We have adjusted our experiences and messaging to focus on these factors. Through these changes we have been able to encourage more of our visitors to take small, everyday actions to save the environment and save the penguins. Feedback from visitors suggests that this program is helping to raise awareness of environmental issues. The results are being used in the design of future campaigns, both at uShaka Sea World and in zoos and aquariums elsewhere.’ Judy Mann, Conservation Strategist, South African Association for Marine Biological Research 

‘Thank you for all your work around conservation messaging and audience responses. As someone working to establish a strategic approach to community campaigns at a zoo, your work has been referenced heavily in the development of discussion papers and strategies. Hopefully we can continue to aid you and your team in furthering your understanding of how to best bring about action on key conservation issues.’ Alan Gill, Perth Zoo

In 2016, staff at the Shedd Aquarium published an article describing how DoVE improved visitor experiences— ‘We have used DoVE [UQ’s 15-dimension instrument that captures data about visitor experiences] to better understand the variability in the visitor experience Shedd-wide. Using the example of connection, we have been able to identify where connection scores are high and where they are lower, and then use those findings to further investigate why such variation exists across exhibition experiences… This information about our visitors’ experience in Amphibians provided valuable insight. In collaboration with our animal care staff, we began to alter lighting, habitat design, and even the animals on exhibit to help create a better experience that allowed for a less tense and more satisfying search.’ Nesbitt and Maldonado, 2016.

UQ and University of Canberra have co-hosted nine annual Visitor Research Forums that bring academics and industry practitioners together — ‘I enjoyed the Visitor Research Forums more than any other research-based event of the past 12 months, thanks to the quality, subject focus and diversity of the presentations, so thank you for the huge amount of work inevitably involved in the delivery of such a successful day.’ Victoria Young, Doctoral candidate, Tate Art Museum


[1] Ballantyne, Packer, Hughes and others

[2] Moscardo, Ballantyne and Hughes

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