ARTIS: We Changed a Zoo

Unloved and outdated, the Amsterdam zoo was in trouble. Enter Haig Balian, a former film producer with a creative vision, a relentless drive and a belief that life itself, rather than any one animal, should be the star attraction.  

ARTIS ten years ago is like smoking in a plane – it was a completely different world,” says Christian Borstlap, the creative director and artist, who has worked on a series of campaigns for Amsterdam’s zoo, which sits just a couple of kilometres east of the city center. It was originally built in 1838, but the park had become grey and depressing, and more and more questions were being asked about the cage sizes and the animals’ living conditions.

Like many Dutch people, ARTIS has a nostalgic place in my heart. I have fond family memories of my mum taking my brother and I to go and see the elephants. But when I revisited the zoo during my adolescence, it felt like I had somehow romanticized the place. All I could see were the cages, the jaguars pacing up and down behind the bars.

Still from Christian Borstlap’s film Artis Lives

Then in 2003, film producer Haig Balian arrived as the zoo’s new director. He knew it was time to turn everything upside down to save the once so-beloved zoo.

When I visited Haig in his office, which sits directly next the vultures’ enclosure, he had just announced his retirement. He was in the mood to reminisce about what he’s accomplished in the past 14 years, and our meeting turned into an afternoon-long tour through the park. 

“I had to reorganise everything,” he remembers. “Everything was outdated, the zoo was in a very bad condition and it was actually in a huge crisis. And that was my luck – it opened up space for me to renew everything.”

Now, fast forward to 2017, and ARTIS has a completely different look and feel. Haig’s vision has been realized and decisions were made on all levels to improve ARTIS, as a home for its animals and and as a visitor experience. The polar bear, one of the zoo’s big attractions, was moved to a different zoo where it could be housed in more suitable conditions.  Walking through the park we visit the jaguars’ new spacious home, where two cubs had just been born.

The park’s historic buildings have been carefully restored, using color studies to recreate their former allure.

 Masmanhuisje before renovations, photo ARTIS, Ronald van WeerenMasmanhuisje after renovations, photo ARTIS, Ronald van Weeren

Artisplein, a new square designed by landscape architect Michael van Gessel is a peaceful, brick-patterned refuge from the city which surrounds it. ARTIS-Micropia, the world’s first museum completely focused on micro-organisms – was completed in 2014 and has won a raft of design awards.

Even the signage used to guide the public through the park shows this renewed focus on design – instead of putting the animals’ names, we see miniature drawings of elephants, gorillas and sea lions. The whole zoo now feels considered, every aspect refined by the design sensibilities for which the Dutch are famous.

Signage by Mijksenaar

But while the zoo’s renovations were necessary to refurbish the positive image of the park, Haig didn’t stop there. Having reimagined the zoo as a physical space, Haig and his team set about changing the way people felt about the zoo.

“If you don’t change, you’ll just continue in the same way,” Haig says, pointing out that most zoo logos around the world look very similar. 

ARTIS’ former logo
ARTIS’ new logo designed by Part of a Bigger Plan

So the first step was to switch the old logo with its fussy type and patterned boxes to to a more simplified version designed by Part of a Bigger Plan – modern sans-serif black type on a white background. Next they started working with Christian Borstlap, the founder of the studio on multiple campaigns, each more surprising than the next.

Zoos have long worked with image-makers and ARTIS has a longstanding artistic heritage. The halls are covered with marketing campaigns from the last hundred years, showcasing wonderful illustrations of baboons, sloths and flamingos.

But Christian’s approach was new, because unlike almost any other zoo in the world, the new ARTIS campaigns didn’t revolve around its star attractions – the elephants, the lions or the penguins. Instead, Christian and ARTIS worked on a more abstract approach.

“I said, listen, I have to change all sorts of things in ARTIS. I don’t want a campaign with animals or plants, because I don’t know what I’m going to get rid of. If we select a polar bear for the campaign and I get rid of the polar bear, that’s not an option. So I told them to come up with something completely different,” Haig says.

And so Christian, together with David Snellenberg made up Artis de Partis, a puppet made out of an old sock, who wanders around the zoo and interacts with the animals. It’s an odd-looking creature – with its sand-colored wool, huge nose and small button eyes – and at first glance it looks somewhat underwhelming.

Artis de Partis by Christian Borstlap and David Snellenberg

But Artis de Partis became a huge hit. People loved it – the doll sold out multiple times and it became a much-prized mascot for the city’s infinite cyclists. 

“The way it was set up, the whole story around it, defined its success,” Christian explains. “A character isn’t necessarily new – but the way it was presented, with some kind of love for the puppet, and for ARTIS as well, made it popular,” Christian explains.

“He is a little wayward and unruly – it is a sign of innovation,” Haig adds.

But eventually the puppet became too popular. “He started to take over ARTIS – he became its face,” Haig says. “And no-one is allowed to become the face of ARTIS, not Artis de Partis, not the director, not a caretaker. ARTIS itself is the brand.”

Even though Artis de Partis is still used in some campaigns, from that moment on the team started to explore different directions. For example, they came up with a colorful game of blocks with which you can recreate every animal living in the zoo. To coincide with the opening of Micropia, they created a video featuring a guy in a suit made completely out of microbes (it’s less disgusting than it sounds).

Haig, with his background as a film producer, often draws parallels between his former and current worlds. Zoos, like films, rely on big-name headliners. Like the cinema, they create a pact with visitors. “It’s similar to films – a zoo is suspended disbelief,” he says.  “You know it’s not real, you know that elephant is not truly living in nature. But just like with movies, it makes you smile, or it makes you cry. It tells a story.”

But, more importantly for ARTIS’ strategy, like a movie a zoo is not always what it initially seems to be about. During our chat it becomes clearer and clearer that Haig finds humans, animals and plants equally important, and he emphasizes that life, not animals, is the zoo’s main theme.

From the start Haig wanted to change people’s relationship with the zoo, and use it to explore how humans relate to and connect with the natural world in all its forms.

Maybe this vision was best translated in Christian and Haig’s last undertaking together – an incredible short video exploring all aspects of nature – with the slogan “ARTIS Lives.”

We see unidentified creatures stumble through a wondrous world – with a voice narrating their sometimes wonderful, sometimes dangerous journey through life.

“I discovered there’s one vocabulary when it comes to living things,” Christian says. He shows me a book with drawings from all sorts of plants and points out how the natural world is connected.

“You have seaweed which has light-sensitive cells which work like eyes. This shows there’s this grey area between plants and animals, but everything is alive,” he says. And that’s exactly the goal of this video, to indicate that certain traits can be found in all types of life, whether that’s a person, a giraffe or a tropical flower.

Haig picks up this theme. “When you keep it abstract, you stay focused on what you want to say,” he says. “That’s something with hair, with eyes, some creature laying eggs, and so on. That’s what makes it special. The video is a biology lesson in one minute. It’s not about humans or nature, but about life, and the connection we have with life.”

He looks out across the zoo which he has reinvented, and which he will shortly leave. “That’s an enormous difference from any other zoo in the world.”

 Sketch by Christian Borstlap
Sketch by Christian Borstlap
Christian Borstlap
Christian Borstlap

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