Kansas City penguins delight in their first art history lesson

Three rather unusual aquatic guests waddled through the halls of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Missouri last week. “They reacted very much like our visitors, who wander around the rooms and look a little here and a little there,” said director Julián Zugazagoitia.

The novel idea of giving penguins a guided museum tour initially began as a joke between Zugazagoitia and Randy Wisthoff, the director of Kansas City Zoo. Many institutions across the United States remain closed due to Covid-19, but they are continuously discovering new ways to interact with their global audiences.

I was calling him to see how operations were going and when they were thinking about reopening,” explained Zugazagoitia. “Then, as a joke, I said, ‘Hey, why don’t you bring some of your penguins to the museum?’

Wisthoff was surprisingly receptive to the proposition, with the welfare of the zoo’s animals guiding his decision: “taking care of the wild animals at the Kansas City Zoo, we’re always looking for ways to enrich their lives and stimulate their days…and during this shutdown period, our animals really miss having visitors come out and see them.”

In a video posted by the museum, art and animal lovers alike can observe the penguins excitedly toddle around the empty galleries as they enjoy their very first art history lesson. During their unconventional outing, the penguins even showed preferences to certain paintings over others.

At first Zugazagoitia suggested the flightless birds might like Claude Monet’s (1840-1926) ‘Water Lilies’, which were created between 1915 and 1926, as “it’s so calming and soothing.” But much to the surprise of the director, the penguins were instead entranced by the room filled with Baroque paintings and particularly by Caravaggio (1571-1610).

They seemed to spend more time there and look more intently. The room is much warmer, the walls are red, and there’s a lot of action going on in the paintings,” pondered Zugazagoitia. “I don’t know if the penguins were recognizing human figures and looking at that, as they like interacting with humans, or maybe they just like the Old Masters more.

Across the world, zoos have struggled to cope with unprecedented closures and supply disruptions caused by the outbreak of coronavirus. The pandemic also seems to be affecting the behaviour of many species, including increased reports of animal loneliness. “It’s fair to say animals miss people as much as people miss animals,” commented Daniel M. Ashe, the President and CEO of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

Despite the current difficulties, Kansas City are endeavouring to boost the morale of their feathered friends. “The penguins absolutely loved it!” declared Wisthoff, proving that museums truly are for everyone.

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