Design of dolphin exhibits at the New York Aquarium
Funding:  World Wildlife Fund
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Project Summary

Thomas Webler participated in a research project with the aim of creating an exhibition that addresses preconceptions and constructed understandings of dolphins. The exhibit was not intended to feature live dolphins; those had been removed from the Aquarium some years previously. Rather, the exhibit was meant to convey recent scientific understandings of dolphin intelligence to visitors. The results of the project were used to design an exhibit, which was built and installed at the Aquarium in spring 2006.

Read more about the theoretical background of this project.


From prior research we were aware that opinions about dolphins and their intelligence vary widely, among the public and in media presentations. We wanted to preserve the subjectivity of peopleÕs responses to facilitate comparing individual views. Q methodology was be an effective way to accomplish this. By comparing opinions regarding consistent criteria, the Q method maintains individual meanings and allows for quantitative analysis and the discovery of more general social narratives. Understanding these narratives guided the design of the exhibition to provide accessibility and modes of entry suited to the audience.

From informal interviews of children and adults, we gathered and selected 50 statements of opinion that cover a wide spectrum of beliefs from the full concourse of opinions about dolphins and their intelligence (the Q sample). Individuals reacted to these statements by ranking them along a continuum from Òmost like how I thinkÓ to Òleast like how I thinkÓ (a Q sort). Analysis revealed patterns and relationships in responses to develop several social narratives that revealed how visitors understand dolphins.


We surveyed people who are predisposed to visit zoos and aquariums, including the communities neighboring the Aquarium (Russian, Chinese, and Latino communities), as well as the general New York City population. Additionally, we surveyed children aged 7 to 10 years old (with particular focus on 7 and 8 year-olds) and adults.


Our Q analysis was done separately for our adult and children participants. Each revealed three perspectives on dolphin intelligence. The perspectives, which are reported in the project publications, revealed that people had some significant differences in how they thought about dolphins. The results were used to design an exhibit, which was built and installed at the NYC Aquarium in spring 2006.


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