October 24-26, 2007
Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Paper: Visitors' Contributions As Cultural Heritage: Designing For Participation

Luigina Ciolfi, Liam J. Bannon and Mikael Fernström, Interaction Design Centre, Dept. of Computer Science and Information Systems, University of Limerick, Ireland


In this paper we discuss our approach to designing two public exhibitions, where our goal has been that of facilitating and supporting visitors’ own contributions to the exhibits. The approach behind our work sees the role of technology that is supporting people’s experiences of heritage as moving away from delivery of information, and towards enabling visitors to create the content of the exhibit. This approach is aimed at encouraging active reflection, discussion and appropriation, in the tradition of human-centred interaction design. In the paper we present two installations, “Re-Tracing the Past” and the “Shannon Portal”. The former was aimed at supporting visitors’ experiences of a museum collection; the latter had the goal of encouraging visitors and travelers to share their experiences of Ireland. We then discuss the impact of this design strategy, and analyse the role of visitors’ contributions to each exhibit, and the particular interactions between participants, the content they produced and other people’s contributions that took place around the two exhibits.

Keywords: interaction design, participation, visitors experience, ubiquitous computing, public exhibitions, user-contributed conten

1. Introduction: Interaction Design for Museums and Exhibitions

This paper discusses the importance of designing interactive exhibits that allow for visitors’ direct participation and contribution, from the perspective of human-centred interaction design. We present an overview of research featuring a participative approach to exhibition design, highlighting the relevant issues that have emerged in the field, and we present two examples of interactive exhibitions that we have designed with an explicit concern for visitors’ participation. Finally, we discuss the positive outcomes that such a design approach has led to regarding both examples.

The fields of Human-Computer Interaction, Computer-Supported Cooperative Work and more recently, Interaction Design, have paid considerable attention to issues related to the introduction of technology within museums and exhibition spaces. Concerns regarding the usability, usefulness and educational value of technological museum interventions have been raised, both regarding the design and production of these tools and the evaluation of their use by museum visitors (Marti, 2001; Grinter et al., 2002). Examples of interventions that have been developed in the past number of years include interactive information points, mobile digital visitors guides and interactive exhibitions. As well as reflecting on the qualities that such installations should feature from the point of view of their design, several issues surrounding the problematic nature of overlaying digital content over museum artifacts have also been discussed, including the impact on the social nature of the museum visit (vom Lehn et al., 2001), the educational value of the installations (Hall and Bannon, 2006), and their potential to support engagement and flow (Giaccardi, 2005). In other words, besides ensuring that a certain technological intervention responds to specific design guidelines both in terms of physical and of interface design, it is also necessary to reflect on how technology impacts on the museum experience as a whole.

For example, electronic museum guides have evolved from inflexible and isolating single user tools into adaptive presentation devices that can take into account social aspects of the visit as well as the visitor’s personal preferences and physical path (Woodfruff et al., 2002)

Interactive exhibits and interactive informational support to exhibits have changed from the format of a standard touch-screen terminal which might distance visitors from the objects on display to complex orchestrated performances that can be aware of visitors’ presence and gaze, their actions and preferences (Sparacino et al., 2000; Barrass, 2001).

Therefore, as well as technical developments, Interaction Design disciplines have devoted significant reflections into conceptualizing higher-level issues when looking at the role of technology in the museum visit. Notable examples include vom Lehn at al.’s (2001) discussion of the role that visitors’ participation in the exhibit can have in supporting the social nature of the visit, and Chalmers and Galani’s (2002) study of visiting experience at different levels: exploring the complex interplay of the object, the technology and the different voices that come into play in the interpretation process.

The vast majority of this research, however, has dealt extensively with technology that has the ultimate function of delivering information to visitors, albeit in sophisticated ways. A more recent development in interaction design for museums and exhibitions is that of designing for visitors’ participation and direct involvement in shaping, and even creating, the content and message of exhibits. In the following section, we will discuss some relevant examples.

2. Visitors’ Participation in Museum Exhibitions: Open Issues

The approach to design museum technologies that focuses on enabling and facilitating visitors to actively participate in shaping or creating the content, and in contributing to an exhibit, has been less commonly applied in traditional museums. In fact, many technologically cutting-edge installations (see for example Sparacino et al., 2000), although employing novel input and output mechanisms that allow for some degree of innovative interaction, still work on the assumption of the visitors requesting and being delivered more information. However, several examples of installations that are open to visitors’ active participation have been successfully deployed.

Heath et al. (2002) and Hindmarsh et al. (2002) have discussed in detail the ecologies of participation surrounding low-tech exhibits that visitors can visually become part of, such as “Deus Oculi” and “Ghost Ship”. The main goal of these exhibits is to encourage and engender episodes of social interaction and communication around an exhibit, making the visitors part of the exhibit itself, and thus drawing the interest of companions and onlookers.

Other examples feature the possibility for visitors to shape the exhibit in other ways. Visitors to the Memory Exhibition at the Exploratorium in San Francisco can contribute their own stories to the body of information associated with the exhibition (http://www.exploratorium.edu/memory/index.html). On a similar theme, Lane and Parry (2003) describe an installation to support the re-evocation and expression of personal memories of visitors at the British Museum. As part of another science and technology exhibition at “The Ark” cultural centre in Dublin, “Terraria” (Vaucelle et al., 2005) was designed to encourage visitors to create their own content by creating captures of their performance while playing a game.

More commonly, such exhibitions allow for some degree of visitors’ activity and for the creation of personalized “mementos” of their visit, but not for an explicit contribution of content to the exhibition itself. For example, at the National Library of Medicine’s exhibit on female surgeons, visitors could create Morse code message that could be sent to friends, but not be used as a direct contribution to exhibitions (Mullen and Tuohy, 2002).

From these examples, it emerges that an approach that is open to visitors’ contribution is more often adopted when designing exhibits in the context of hands-on museums such as exploratoria and science centres, and it is less commonly found in “traditional” galleries exhibiting artistic artefacts and antiquities. The main issue surrounding the introduction of such an approach in this context is one of authorship: museums tend to assume a role of authority when it comes to providing information about their holdings. The interpretation of a certain object on display is decided a priori by the curatorial team: thus the narrative that is presented to visitors is not really open to challenges or external contributions. Interactive art has produced interesting reflections on collaborative practices in designing exhibitions, and on authorship issues ((Diamond, 2005), embodied by pieces that are explicitly designed to create active visitor engagement (Giaccardi, 2005). This approach however is more seldom found in more traditional art museums.

We believe this approach is effective because it relies on visitors’ curiosity and interest on a topic and rewards their active engagement and reflection. Having the possibility of expressing their own ideas and feelings makes visitors connect strongly to what they experience, rather than just being passive observers of something that is detached and unchangeable. Such involvement strategies have been applied for many years by museum educators and docents; we feel that appropriate technologies can embody a similar approach and work successfully, also – if necessary - in conjunction with human facilitation and guidance during the visit.

In our research, we aim at supporting visitors’ engagement, reflection and appreciation of the exhibit by supporting their active participation in contributing to the content of the exhibition, in the context both of established art museums and of more informal exhibition spaces. In the following section we present two examples: an interactive exhibit for a museum housing a collection of art and antiquities, and an interactive installation on the theme of Irish heritage that was exhibited at an international airport.

3. Designing for Participation: User-Centred Design Approach

The work leading to the design of both exhibitions has been driven by a user and activity-centred approach (Bannon, 2005): the development of usage scenarios and technology demonstrators is constantly informed by in-depth studies of the end users, their activities and the broader context where they take place. In order to develop a thorough understanding of these issues, we adopt methodologies aimed at gathering information not just on how visitors physically move through the exhibition space, which exhibits they prefer, and what kind of information about them they seek; we also investigate how visitors communicate to each other around the exhibits and how they make sense of what they see. We believe that sense making is also tightly coupled with place, or how the physical environment is lived and experienced by people: the qualities of the physical layout of an exhibit become a factor of how the exhibits themselves are associated with meaning by people (Ciolfi and Bannon, 2007). The range of methods we employ include observations, interviews, inspirational materials sessions and walkthroughs (Ciolfi, 2007b).

The data gathered during this initial phase of the design process is analysed in order to extract relevant dimensions, regarding the visitor experience, that design could support and augment. As well as pointing out how technology could aid the delivery of the museum’s own message to people, we also consider how visitors’ views and thoughts could be represented, and how technology could act as facilitator in this case.

Based on such findings, we conduct design sessions, where a number of emergent themes are discussed and developed into scenarios. We also adopt Participatory Design methods, involving museum experts, educators, volunteers and sample visitors in the discussions and evaluations of prototypes, in order to incorporate their views and concerns into the design process. PD has recently been applied to the design of a number of interactive installations in order to include a larger group of stakeholders into the process (see for example Taxén, 2004).

This approach was applied to both the cases we present in this paper: “Re-Tracing the Past” and the “Shannon Portal”.

3.1 Case 1: “Re-Tracing the Past”

“Re-Tracing the Past” was designed and developed for the Hunt Museum in Limerick, Ireland: a personal and eclectic collection, the Hunt Museum includes a great variety of artifacts, including a number of objects that have never been fully interpreted. The Museum’s approach to communicating the collection is that of fostering debate and discussion among visitors, and of facilitating this through informal volunteer help provided by the Hunt Museum Docents. The goal of our work with the Hunt Museum was to extend the Museum’s ethos and message through an interactive experience where visitors’ own opinions would become part of the exhibit (Bannon et al., 2005).

Figure 1
Fig. 1 Overview of “Re-Tracing the Past”: the Study Room (right) and the Room of Opinion (left)

“Re-Tracing the Past” supported the exploration of four of the Museum’s “mysterious” objects through two fully interactive environments, a “Study Room” and a “Room of Opinion”, both including several hands-on interactive components, and housed in the temporary exhibition gallery of the Hunt Museum, which is accessible from the main galleries (Ferris et al., 2004). “The Study Room” is where known information about the objects could be discovered: the Interactive Desk provided information on the geographical provenance of the artifacts; the Interactive Trunk showed visitors were each object was found; the Interactive Painting displayed visual and auditory information on the material qualities of the artifacts. In the “Room of Opinion”, the participants could record in voice their own theories and opinions regarding the objects and store them for future visitors, thus actively contributing to the exhibit and to the development of a body of information that was produced “live” in the context of “Re-Tracing the Past”, and not previously pre-packaged. The body of opinions was a perceivable representation of the discussion and debate that surrounded the museums objects, and it was made available to visitors through an Interactive Radio, where people could browse through the body of audio recordings and hear other participants’ experiences and thoughts. Each interactive installation could be explored thanks to RFID-enabled keycards representing the mysterious objects. The Museum staff and volunteers were also invited to record their opinions of the objects, so that the Interactive Radio became a representation of the different voices that are present in the Museum: visitors, staff, docents and curators

The design rationale for “Re-Tracing the Past” emerged from studies of the Hunt Museum exhibition policy and from the history of the collection, as well as from observations of visitors’ explorations in the museum. The museum encourages discussion and reflection around the objects. The information regarding the collection is kept intentionally minimal also in order to encourage the Docents’ personal support of visitors.

The two spaces had very different design qualities to suggest different activities: the Study Room is where information can be retrieved and pieced together, whilst the Room of Opinion is where reflection occurs (Fig. 1). All the installations were designed to support group interaction and collaborative discovery.

Visitors’ reactions to “Re-Tracing the Past” have been discussed elsewhere (Ferris et al, 2004); it is important however to point out the very important role that the creation of   recordings, visitors’ own contributions to the exhibition, have played in the overall experience of “Re-Tracing the Past”.

The recordings were appreciated by people as mementos of their visit, as traces left of their presence and activities in the space. People were keen to make recordings of their opinions as a mark of their efforts in researching and understanding the mysterious objects.

The recordings were treated as new sources of information to inform one’s investigation of the objects, thus becoming important elements in new explorations: people were as interested in hearing other visitors’ comments as well as their own, in order to glean more ideas and suggestions to fuel further reflection on a object. Similarly, the recorded opinions become for participants perceivable representation of their investigation work, and not simply of their presence. They appreciated the fact that their contribution would be useful to others, whether because well-informed and plausible, or humorous and imaginative.

The recordings also worked as powerful triggers for social interaction and collaboration within “Re-Tracing the Past”: both companions and strangers would initiate discussions while listening to previous recordings or making new ones (Fig. 2). The activity of bringing forth personal thoughts and ideas seemed to stimulate social interaction more than the activity of retrieving pre-prepared information about the objects from the other interactive components of “Re-Tracing the past”. Collaboration and discussion took place both among visitors and between visitors and members of the museum staff who regularly attended the exhibition.

Figure 2
Fig. 2 Discussion among visitors while listening to recordings on the Interactive Radio

Overall the possibility of contributing to the exhibition, and more generally to the museum, led to high levels of engagement and connection between visitors and the Hunt Museum, without replacing the role of the museum as the “expert voice” regarding the objects.

3.2 Case 2: “The Shannon Portal”

The second exhibit, the “Shannon Portal”, was designed for Shannon International Airport in County Clare, Ireland. The goal of the installation was to extend the airport’s role as a connection hub, allowing users to create content that would document their travels and experiences in the West of Ireland. The “Portal” made it possible for participants to create “e-cards” of their own photographs of locations and monuments in the area, to annotate them with a personal hand-written message and email them for free around the world (Fig. 3).

Figure 3
Fig. 3 The Shannon Portal

Participants could also “donate” annotated photos to a public image gallery that was displayed in the airport’s transit lounge, which constituted a visual record of their journeys and of the heritage sites they had visited.

The public gallery of images was displayed on a “Image Wall” that visitors could browse, navigating by body movement: a computer vision system detected the presence of people in front of a particular portion of the Wall, and subsequently triggered a virtual digital magnifying glass to move in correspondence of the person’s position, so that annotated images could be viewed more clearly (see fig. 4).

Figure 4
Fig. 4 The Image Wall

The design of the Shannon Portal was informed by studies of people’s activities in the airport, and particularly by the travel stories that passengers exchange while in the space: the airport is where travels and visits to interesting parts of the country are recounted for family, friends and sometimes strangers. Our goal was to design an interactive installation that would entertain and engage waiting passengers. The theme of Irish heritage appeared appropriate to the particular context of the exhibit. The physical design of the Portal, in the shape of a portal dolmen, reflected this theme: dolmens are Neolithic monuments that can be found in high numbers in the West of Ireland, and that represented the focal point and memento of a community in prehistoric times (Ciolfi et al, 2007).

The Portal supported both private interactions (writing a message on a photo and emailing it privately) and public ones (adding one’s image to the Image Wall and exploring the Image Wall by moving in front of it) around content that the participants themselves had produced and personalized (Ciolfi, 2007a).

Similarly to “Re-Tracing the Past”, personalised content was viewed by visitors as a memento of their presence and of their journey. Participants uploaded photographs of the places they had visited, the people they traveled with and also of the airport they were going through at the time. They enjoyed the possibility of making their experience visible to others. As well as in the museum, personalised content was a trigger for social interaction, and a starting point for conversations among both traveling companions and strangers regarding the places and monuments visited and the experience of traveling around Ireland. Interestingly, participants commented on how the annotated photos provided them with other perspectives on the same places, or landmarks, and other views of the airport, such as for example those expressed in photos uploaded by airport staff members (Fig. 5).

Figure 5
Fig. 5 Discussion among staff and passengers while creating e-cards

Collaborative creation of content was also a recurrent phenomenon around the “Portal”: families and groups collaboratively created messages and drawings both for emailing to friends and for contributing to the image wall. The participative aspect of the interaction particularly encouraged collaborative use of the system, as groups of users enjoyed creating humorous messages and sketches, and composing notes for their loved ones together.

4. Discussion

Both cases showed how visitors’ participation in contributing to the exhibition content had repercussions not only on the appearance and layout of each exhibit, but also on the patterns of interaction that occurred.

Social interaction, in particular, was greatly affected by people’s ability to make direct contributions: not only in terms of collaboration while creating the content, but also regarding the role that visitors’ contribution played in engendering reflection, discussion and debate around the exhibits. This happened equally in “Re-Tracing the Past” and the “Shannon Portal”, although the two settings of the museum and the airport supported different themes for discussion.

In the case of “Re-Tracing the Past”, visitors’ opinions were very effective triggers for reflections on the nature of museum exhibitions in general: visitors who were engaged in developing their own theory were keen in discussing issues related to how museum exhibitions are created and shaped. In this respect, designing for participation does not simply respond to the need for technological innovation in supporting cultural heritage; it  also responds to the need of museums and other sites to allow for a more active visitors’ role.

Visitors were able to view museums and exhibits as places that represent multiple voices. In both cases, visitor contributions were seen as perceptible mementoes of one’s presence, thus increasing engagement with the exhibit.

One important issue that we had to consider in developing our design for both exhibits was the risk that some visitors might produce inappropriate content. In order to minimize the risk of this phenomenon happening, we put in place monitoring systems that would allow the museum and airport staff to easily monitor what was being displayed in the exhibition, and to delete inappropriate contributions. However, this kind of content appeared only very seldom, and could easily be dealt with without any major effort by staff. The public setting of the exhibitions meant that inappropriate content could easily be traced back to its creator, and this dimension of openness worked as a deterrent in this regard.

5. Conclusions

In this paper we have discussed a user and activity-centred approach to the design of interactive exhibitions that focuses on the possibility of participants actively contributing by producing personal content. We feel that novel technologies could be use effectively in supporting more active visitor participation, moving away from installations that –albeit in technologically sophisticated ways - simply deliver pre-packaged information.

We have exemplified this approach to design with the description of two cases, “Re-Tracing the Past” and “The Shannon Portal”. Both exhibitions have been designed and developed on the basic of in-depth studies of the broader context of the exhibit and of the activities taking place in each setting. The two examples show how this approach to design can be effective not only in informal exhibition spaces, but also in more traditional art museums.

We have described the main impact that visitor contributions had not only on the layout and designed features of the exhibitions, but also –and more importantly- on the patterns of interaction that occurred around them: the contributions were powerful ways of engaging visitors in the exhibition and creating a sense of belonging and attachment. Social interaction and collaborative production of content was also greatly affected by visitors’ ability to contribute to the exhibit. The two cases show how a participative approach to interactive systems design can be successful at a variety of levels, not least in triggering visitors’ reflections on the role and nature of museums and exhibitions.


 The “Shannon Portal” has been developed as part of the “Shared Worlds” research project funded by Science Foundation Ireland. “Re-Tracing the Past” has been developed within the EU FET “SHAPE” Project, in collaboration with the Royal Institute of Technology (Stockholm, Sweden), King’s College London and the University of Nottingham (UK). Many thanks to staff and visitors at both the Hunt Museum and at Shannon International Airport, and to the many IDC colleagues who have participated in the projects.


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Cite as:

Ciolfi, L., et al., Visitors' Contributions As Cultural Heritage: Designing For Participation , in International Cultural Heritage Informatics Meeting (ICHIM07): Proceedings, J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds). Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. 2007. Published October 24, 2007 at http://www.archimuse.com/ichim07/papers/ciolfi/ciolfi.html