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A museum let a group of penguins wander its empty rooms, and they couldn't take their eyes off the paintings

INSIDER logoINSIDER 5/21/2020 akonstantinides@businessinsider.com (Anneta Konstantinides)
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  • Penguins from the Kansas City Zoo recently went on a field trip to the nearby Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. 
  • The adorable penguins freely wandered the halls as they admired Baroque and Impressionist masterpieces. 
  • Museum director Julián Zugazagoitia expected them to be big fans of Monet's famous "Water Lilies," but they were far more drawn to Caravaggio. 
  • The museum's video of the penguins' field trip has since racked up hundreds of thousands of views. 

As we continue to stay at home, penguins around the world are having a blast. They're meeting whales in the aquarium, roaming the streets of Cape Town, and even getting their first art history lesson. 

a painting of a person in front of a mirror posing for the camera: Penguins from the Kansas City Zoo recently went on a field trip to The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art © The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art Penguins from the Kansas City Zoo recently went on a field trip to The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art Penguins from the Kansas City Zoo recently paid a visit to The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, wandering the halls as they admired Baroque and Impressionist masterpieces. 

The three Humboldt penguins examined paintings by the likes of Caravaggio and Monet, surprising the museum's director with their artistic tastes.

a painting on the side of a building: The three Humboldt penguins spent the day admiring Baroque and Impressionist masterpieces. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art © The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art The three Humboldt penguins spent the day admiring Baroque and Impressionist masterpieces. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

Julián Zugazagoitia told Insider that he initially assumed his penguin visitors would be entranced by Monet's "Water Lilies."

"The reason we wanted to expose the penguins to the 'Water Lilies,' besides the fact that it's one of our favorite paintings, is that it's so calming and soothing," he said. "We thought maybe they would react to the soothingness of that painting, but they seemed to wander around and not particularly stop on that one." 

Julián Zugazagoitia, the museum's director, told Insider he expected the penguins to be drawn to Monet's famous "Water Lilies." The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art © The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art Julián Zugazagoitia, the museum's director, told Insider he expected the penguins to be drawn to Monet's famous "Water Lilies." The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

But the penguins, it seems, are far bigger Baroque fans. 

"I think they felt more comfortable there," Zugazagoitia said. "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." 

"I don't know if the penguins were recognizing human figures and looking at that, as they like interacting with humans," he added. "Or maybe they just like the Old Masters more." 

a painting of a room: It turned out the penguins were fans of Baroque. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art © The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art It turned out the penguins were fans of Baroque. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

The idea to bring penguins to the museum actually started as an April Fool's joke. 

On April 1,  Zugazagoitia called up Randy Wisthoff, the director of Kansas City Zoo, to ask about his plans for reopening amid the ongoing pandemic. 

"All of Kansas City, especially the arts and nonprofits, is a very close-knit and friendly group," Zugazagoitia said. "So we're all talking to each other to coordinate how to reopen." 

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

a dog that is standing in front of a building: The penguins' caretakers followed closely behind as they waddled around the new and exciting space. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art © The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art The penguins' caretakers followed closely behind as they waddled around the new and exciting space. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

"I thought he'd think it was a crazy idea," Zugazagoitia added. "But he said, 'Of course, when do you want to do it?' So it went from silly banter with a friend to something possible and real." 

Staff from both the zoo and museum worked together to plan the visit.

"We were concerned first and foremost for the security of the birds and the art, and that's what determined what rooms were available," Zugazagoitia explained. 

a painting on a wall in a room: Zugazagoitia said he was surprised to find that the penguins were quite similar to the museum's usual guests. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art © The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art Zugazagoitia said he was surprised to find that the penguins were quite similar to the museum's usual guests. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

During the visit, the penguins' caretakers followed closely behind as they waddled around the new and exciting space. 

And Zugazagoitia said he was surprised to find that the penguins were quite similar to the museum's usual guests. 

"They reacted very much like our visitors, who wander around the rooms and look a little here and a little there," he explained. "They say the average attention span of humans is eight to 10 seconds when you're looking in a very big museum, and I think the penguins were in that average. They were more anthropomorphic than I had expected them to be." 

Since the penguins are Peruvian, Zugazagoitia spoke to them in Spanish as they explored the museum. 

a dog standing in a room: Since the penguins are Peruvian, Zugazagoitia spoke to them in Spanish as they explored the museum. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art © The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art Since the penguins are Peruvian, Zugazagoitia spoke to them in Spanish as they explored the museum. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

"I'm not an expert on the animal world," he said. "But seeing them was like, 'Oh my god, they're paying attention, they're curious." 

The museum posted a video of the penguins' May 6 visit on YouTube, where it quickly racked up hundreds of thousands of views and even made international news. 

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"The greatest surprise was seeing the emails and comments from people saying how much they enjoyed it," Zugazagoitia said. "I think it's also a sign of the times, that it's good to be light and whimsical and have a little bit of fun." 

"I think this provided an unexpected joy and a bit of fun," he added. "The zoo and museum of art are generally physically apart, you don't see them on the same day. But we brought the two together and it was a fantastic surprise. Plus, the penguins were so cute and well-behaved. It was just an amazing day." 

a painting of a bird: The museum posted a video of the penguins' visit on YouTube, where it quickly racked up hundreds of thousands of views. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art © The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art The museum posted a video of the penguins' visit on YouTube, where it quickly racked up hundreds of thousands of views. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

While The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art remains closed for the time being, Zugazagoitia said staff members have been pouring their creativity into its website

"These very difficult times are allowing us to experiment and do things that would otherwise be hard to imagine," he said. "It's important for us to provide a robust and exciting website that mimics the life of the museum, and I hope it's feeding the curiosity and intellect so that people will want to see even more of it when we reopen." 

As the penguins have proved, you always learn something new during a day at the museum.

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