Museums, and particularly science museums, are continuing to investigate the ways in which places themselves, rather than individuals, facilitate learning. Many of the museum findings are applicable wherever informal learning takes place—schools, playgrounds and children’s gardens, training centers, and potentially even dementia care facilities.
"Research on visitor learning in museums suggests that interactivity promotes engagement, understanding, and recall of exhibits."1 Museums, and particularly science museums, are continuing to investigate the ways in which places themselves, rather than individuals, facilitate learning. Many of the museum findings are applicable wherever informal learning takes place—schools, playgrounds and children’s gardens, training centers, and potentially even dementia care facilities.
In recent publications, Sue Allen, investigator at the Exploratorium, a San Francisco science museum, writes about science museum exhibits and learning, and Saul Carliner presents information about his study of museum exhibit design and, as an additional bonus, its relation to web design. In addition, Marianna Adams (Institute for Learning Innovation), Jessica Luke, and Theano Moussouri present ideas about interactivity and design, and Robert West (Informal Learning Experiences) presents information on interactive exhibit costs and consequences—both as part of a special issue of Curator on interactive learning.
Present the Stage for Learning
Successful exhibit design requires a broad focus. Allen writes about the importance of “immediate apprehendability”—the goal of making the museum itself, its areas, and the general workings of the exhibits easy to understand. Without immediate apprehendability, visitors spend their attention on figuring out how the museum is laid out or how to work an exhibit, instead of concentrating on the exhibit’s purpose. She writes that “research has suggested that visitors will only engage in a challenge if they are comfortable and orientated.” Good apprehendability can counteract museum fatigue—a particular challenge in a hands-on science museum. Allen mentions the importance of providing easily located services, sufficient seating, and prominent museum orientation aids. She cites a study result indicating schoolchildren learned more in a museum when they were given a pre-visit orientation and time to eat or shop in the museum store before their museum program. Carliner writes that large, well-placed signature objects in a museum or exhibition can be effective orientation aids, in addition to enticing visitors to further exploration and action.
At the exhibit level, user-centered design principles, such as presenting intuitive controls (knobs are for turning, plates are for pushing), limiting the number of controls, and standardizing the presentation of information, can all help apprehendability. Working with people’s common experiences, such as using a race as the setting for a science principle demonstration, is another way to increase comprehension.
Get the Visitor Involved
Learning involves mental engagement, often sparked by curiosity. Techniques to engage visitors outlined by Carliner include recreating a setting to create immersion in a place, time, or event; focusing the exhibit through presenting a limited number of themes; or using personal narratives or perspectives. Juxtaposition and repetition of material can also increase interest. One popular and generally successful method to spark curiosity is through physical interaction. Researchers at the Exploratorium tested three exhibits about glowworms. One exhibit was highly interactive with live worms, one interactive with live worms, and one non-interactive without live worms. They found that both interactive exhibits captured visitors’ attentions better than the non-interactive version, although there was little difference in interest between the two interactive versions. Allen remarks, though, that two of the museum’s most attractive exhibits—a terrarium containing live frogs, and a display of natural animal decomposition—do not have hands-on components, promoting the idea that physical interactivity is not necessarily the only way to foster involvement. Carliner provides a cautionary note about video components in exhibits. Based on observation, he finds these underused. Since many visitors prefer to think and ponder without interruption, he believes that visitors might be inhibited by creating sound that bleeds into the general exhibit area. Where an interactive exhibit is placed affects how much it is used, Adams and associates write, with interactive exhibits near the museum or gallery entrance being more popular.
Accommodate Different Learning Styles
Allen and Carliner both emphasize the importance of planning for a diversity of learners and learning styles, and embracing the tenets of universal design. Exhibits have to be engaging for those who want to read all the exhibit text, as well as those who skip it entirely or who skim it. Including objects children and adults can touch can enrich the presentation for many, as may unique sounds or even smells. Creating animated, active places and more contemplative learning environments is another way to promote diversity and support different types of learning. Adams notes that exhibits and spaces can be designed to provide active or calming experiences, and some children may prefer less high-energy exhibits. Some people may prefer interactive exhibits over static ones, or vice versa, West remarks, depending on the type of museum experience they value.
"Many interactives do not foster social interaction, and thus diminish the experience for many visitors—thus limiting their interest and potentially their future visits."2
Promote Social Learning
Most museum visitors come in groups. Even simple things, such as having planned gathering spaces, have to be considered to streamline group visits. Allen relates the success of exhibits designed for manipulation by more than one person and for open-ended exploration. These exhibits allowed for visitors to experience different aspects of scientific phenomena. Visitors stayed longer at those exhibits, experimented with different behaviors, and seemed to be interested in answering a broader range of questions than at simple “manipulate this and see the result” exhibits. Carliner mentions scavenger hunts, demonstrations, and other special activities as other ways to engage family groups in learning. Adams and associates remark that learning can be enhanced by the comments and information family members share, and children learn more when they interact with a parent at an exhibit. They also relate cases where family interaction with a staff member or interpreter added significantly to the museum experience.
Computers Can Be Overrated
Both Adams and West write cautionary notes about computer exhibits. West writes that research has shown that if designed for one user, one member of a family group will likely get involved in the computer-based exhibit at the expense of group sharing. Also, many visitors have expressed opinions that they want to do things at the museum they can’t do at home. In one study, Adams and associates reported that visitors did not rate computers very high on a list of things they wanted in an exhibit. Computers can also degrade the perception of the museum if they are old, slow, or not working, West adds.
One aspect of planning exhibits is planning for crowds. What happens when the most popular interactive exhibit has too many people who want to use it, or if lines form? Adams and associates report that crowding can degrade the interactive experience, since visitors will skip crowded exhibits. Mismatch of exhibits and visitor expectations may confuse visitors, particularly if a museum adds interactive exhibits without thinking about how those exhibits relate to the museum’s image, West writes.
Consider the Cost
West puts the price of interactive exhibits between $300 to $700 a square foot, with static exhibits costing $125 to 350 a square foot. Theme parks are usually even more expensive. In addition, maintenance costs for interactive exhibits will be higher. In many cases, interactive exhibits benefit from floor staff—another added cost. Yet, West notes that the cost may be considered an investment. “When the visitor is able to effectively engage with an exhibit, and the exhibit is designed to respond to visitor input—rather than generate the same result each time—there are compelling reasons for visitors to return.”
Test and Retest
Since visitors bring their own expectations to a museum and a specific exhibit, they may not react as exhibit designers expect. As in other situations, visitor satisfaction and learning can only be verified through observing and questioning users. Adams and associates provide some basic questions in Table 1. The authors of all of these papers point out that good exhibit design requires testing. The principles of post-occupancy evaluations apply in museums as well as other informal learning venues, helping us learn how places facilitate learning.
Adams, Marianna, Jessica Luke, and Theano Moussouri. 2004. Interactivity: Moving beyond terminology. Curator, vol. 47 no. 2 (April), pp. 155–68.
1. Allen, Sue. 2004. Designs for learning: Studying science museum exhibits that do more than entertain. Science Education, vol. 88 no. S1, pp. S17–S33.
Carliner, Saul. 2003. Modeling information for three-dimensional space: Lessons learned from museum exhibit design. Technical Communication, vol. 50 no. 4 (November), pp. 554–70.
2. West, Robert “Mac.” 2004. The economics of interactivity. Curator, vol. 47 no. 2 (April), pp. 213–23.