March 22-25, 2006
Albuquerque, New Mexico

Papers: Visitors’ Voices

Mariana Salgado and Lily Diaz-Kommonen, Media Lab - University of Art and Design Helsinki, Finland


This paper presents different interactive installations with the common denominator of giving voice to visitors of museums. It describes the case study of Keskustelukartta (Conversational map) in the context of the museum of Taidehalli. Keskustelukartta is an interactive installation that was deployed in the Young Artists’ Biennale: Small Heaven in November 2005. The installation uses ImaNote (Image Map Annotation Notebook), a Web-based multi-user tool under development in the Media Lab. Keskustelukartta makes it possible for visitors, artists and museum staff to participate actively by leaving comments and links to multimedia resources in a common interactive board. Visitors who have already visited the exhibition can access the Web site remotely and add remarks. There is a whole new field to discover, involving visitors and artists in making the content of the museum visit. Multiple voices for the multiple artefacts in the exhibition enrich the experience.

Keywords: museum, participation, content, interactivity, design, installation, user-contributed content


During four days in November we installed an interactive piece in Taidehalli (Helsinki Art Museum). Its name was Keskustelukartta. It had two main elements: an installation in the museum hall and a Web page. The museum staff and the visitors were the co-authors of the content material. They left comments in the Keskustelukartta using the interactive installation or their own station reaching the Web site. Comments left in the exhibition were reachable from home, before or after the visit.

The goal was to test a platform for collaborative gathering of material related to the exhibition, new material that could renew the experience of the visit. At the same time, we wanted to evaluate the possibilities of installing a piece that involves visitor comments as a part of an exhibition. This project in the future might be a service for other museums. The aim of this test was to improve the prototype and to understand future dimensions opened up by this type of design intervention.

To make this design intervention possible, we used ImaNote.


In this section we go through some previous projects that also included comments coming from other sources than the curators and museum staff in exhibitions.

Wakary and Evernden (2005), while analysing a case study of an Ambient Intelligent Museum Guide, saw the chance to give form to the intellectual knowledge of the museum staff in addition to embodied information of the artefacts. They wanted to get informal and attractive knowledge from the museum researchers.

In the case of the visitors’ board created in the exhibition Iron Ladies: Women in Thatcher’s Britain at the Women’s library, the idea was that visitors answer the question, “What do the 1980’s means to you?” Participants wrote ideas on small pieces of paper and placed their notes on a big board. The role of the board was continually changing during the exhibition until it became a central focus in the exhibition. (Byatt, 2005) We selected this case because it opened to the public another practice which is related to the guest book but goes beyond it by asking a specific question and placing the answers in the context of the exhibition.

Also in “Re-tracing the Past: exploring objects, stories, mysteries” (Ferris et al, 2004), an exhibition in the Hunt Museum, there was the possibility for visitors to record their opinions through an interactive phone station. Other visitors to the exhibition could later on listen to the recorded opinions.

We can also mention Äänijälki, a project that aims to collect visitors’ comments in Ateneum Art Museum, The Finnish National Art Gallery, in Helsinki. It is part of the activities of Systems of Representations Research Group. It is now in prototype stage. It is an audio database that allows visitors to have dialogue with other visitors who are not present at the same moment in the exhibition.

Äänijälki will be used for sharing hints about the experience of going to and being at an exhibition. The goal is to motivate visually impaired people to visit museums by providing a tool to get information about museum spaces and exhibitions, with their ‘comments.’ (Salgado & Kellokoski, 2005)

Is there a tendency to allow visitors to participate more actively in making the content of the exhibition? These projects let visitors contribute to the exhibition in an open way. These contributions are playing a new role in making the content of the exhibition.


About ImaNote

Image Map Annotation Notebook is a tool that has evolved as a response to the needs of two research initiatives of the Systems of Representation group at the Media Lab; namely, the Map of Mexico 1550 and Exploring Carta Marina Cultural Heritage Forum. Among the key objectives of these projects has been the dissemination of cultural heritage artefacts via the use of digital technology. (

Initially the design and functionality of the tool grew from the need to display a version of the digital facsimile of the Map of Mexico 1550 at different exhibition venues such as the Aztecs exhibition in London and Germany during the years 2002 to 2004. The facsimile used in these exhibitions was a high fidelity two-dimensional digital replica created from a subset of the data gathered for the project. It used 64 X 64 bit tiles to manage the some 800 megabytes of data involved and was displayed as a stand-alone interactive installation with a touch screen.

Between the years 2003 and 2004, the tool was re-designed and re-engineered for use in the display of Digital Carta Marina and of the Map of Mexico 1550 on the Web. This development was done as part of CIPHER, a research and development project in the area of cultural heritage funded by the European Union IST 5th framework. A class of 6th grade pupils and their teacher tested and used the tool in the creation of an exhibition on the history of cartography in Scandinavia (

The interactive structure for both the standalone and Web versions was designed around the strategy of navigation of information space via multiple levels of magnification. This was implemented through an overview zoomable user interface. (Hornbœck & Bederson et al., 2002) These interfaces have been defined as systems that employ “two or more distinct views to support the investigation of a single conceptual entity.” (Baldonado, & Woodruff et al., 2000)

Our work at this point was also informed by developments of the on-line map collections of the American Memory project at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. ( A key difference, however, was in our choice to develop Open Source software that is freely available and does not require the use of special plugins in the Web browser software.

In the years 2004-2005, as a part of the project on the Narratives and Legends of the historic centre of Mexico City, the opportunity arose to further develop the tool so as to be able to display the video legends created by the students of the Interactive Design Program of Universidad Iberoamericana de Ciudad de México. As a result, the tool was further developed into ImaNote. (

Functionality of ImaNote now includes the ability to add notes that are saved on the server-side. These notes display, among other things, text messages, links to multimedia resources on the Web, and tags (or keywords). There is a search facility to locate notes according to tags entered, and it is possible to load multiple images. The artefact displayed can be a cartographic specimen as is the case with the cultural heritage objects mentioned earlier or the composite image of the contents of an exhibition as is the case with Keskustelukartta.

Interactive Installation

Keskustelukartta was a design intervention in Taidehalli, during the Small Heaven, Young Artists Biennale in November 2005. Two of the four days chosen for the display of the piece were exceptionally crowded days because the museum organized activities and workshops together with the artists involved in the exhibition.

The interactive installation consisted of a sign, a pile of leaflets, a computer (hidden), a keyboard, a mouse, a projector and a stand that held the keyboard and the mouse.

Fig 1: The installation in the museum

Fig 1: The installation in the museum

The stand was a white cube on the top of which were the keyboard, the mouse and leaflets, and it had a shelf that held the projector. This installation was placed in the hall, near the entrance and the ticket office. The sign and the leaflet described the installation, invited the visitors to leave comments, and informed that the information would be only used for research purposes. A link to Keskustelukartta was in the leaflet and on the Museum pages. This link was available only during the four days in which the installation was in the museum.

We made a map of the exhibition, taking pictures of the pieces exhibited and placing them on top of the plan of the exhibition hall. Although the plan of the hall could not be perceived, the art pieces were put in their respective locations to the others.

Fig 2: The exhibition

Fig 2: The exhibition

This map could be navigated using ImaNote. Annotations to the map could be addressed to the whole exhibition and/or each of the pieces.

Fig 3: Screen shot, full screen

Fig 3: Screen shot, full screen

In some cases, instead of referring to one piece, the visitor/commenter wrote directly to the artist.

Fig 4: Screen shot of an annotation

Fig 4: Screen shot of an annotation

Each comment could contain a title, a core message, a link, a title for the link, tags, the author’s name and the time and date of editing the message.

There was no initial material gathered in Keskustelukartta before it was placed in the museum. Although one of our aims was to elicit comments that could be relevant for other visitors, avoiding trivial content, there was no editing. Offensive material would have been edited.


This project is about collecting and provoking visitors’ comments. In that sense, we can refer to the project as a kind of feedback board, where visitors can leave their comments. On the other side, we cannot describe Keskustelukartta as only a feedback board, because the comments we wanted to collect were open. Most of the comments in a guest book of an exhibition address the question, “How do you like the exhibition?” The typical comment in a guest book is “I like it” or “I didn’t like it”. The practice of leaving open comments is fairly new in the context of museums. ImaNote allows people to leave as a comment any piece of media that is on a Web site and that can be reached by a link. For example, a comment about a certain sculpture could be a piece of music or a video.

Keskustelukartta aims to absorb connections that visitors made or inspirational thoughts that visitors had during the visit to the museum. It tries to open the dialogue between visitors and pieces by making it visible. Visitors have something in mind and are inspired or provoked by the exhibition. Visitors left in the museum a piece of their own identity through the annotations.

Visitors can reply to the museum, to other visitors or to the artists. This is why Keskustelukartta is a social tool that contemplates the human necessity of commenting, criticizing and recommending.

Our hypothesis is that involving visitors’ comments in the message of the exhibition makes the visitors more committed to the experience. The audience is an active participant, leaving traces of their own knowledge. In that way the commitment to the contribution makes the whole museum visit a participative experience.

The museum shows it appreciates the input of visitors by giving them the possibility to show what they know, to summarize it, and to present it to other visitors. This is a learning experience. Meanwhile, we can also add that the fact that the museum agreed to give the space for this installation highlights the importance of visitors’ opinions to museum staff.

The traces left by the visitors allow a dialogue among visitors not necessarily physically present at the same time. It could be an exchange of ideas between future, past and present visitors to museums. Keskustelukartta combines exhibition information coming from experts, from family and friends of the artists, and from other visitors.

At the same time, this project allows the museums to gather knowledge about the audience and even about the material content of the exhibition. An exhibition is a unique opportunity to collect data about the items exhibited. The role of the museum does not consist any more in only disseminating its own knowledge. The exhibition could be presented as a part of a research process, with an option for gathering contributions from visitors. These contributions could be in the form of personal stories, questions, jokes, recommendations, music, etc. Keskustelukartta facilitates communication between the museum, as an institution, and its visitors. It allows the museum staff to get more personal insights from the visitors, not only demographic data. As in the case of Keskustelukartta in the Young Artist Biennale, it might also allow the artists to communicate with the public.

The museum institution can send a particular message to visitors using Keskustelukartta. This message can be an explicit question or an open one. The message of the institution (which is the message of an expert, in formal language) is complemented by the message coming from the visitors and the artists.

Moreover, Keskustelukartta explores the hybrid space of museums and Webs, focusing on the possibilities and needs that the ‘after the visit’ moment can offer.


More than 55 comments were gathered during the four-day period. Most of them were in Finnish but there were some in English, Spanish, and French. Some of these comments referred to other visitors’ previous posted comments. Some of them referred to the exhibition as a whole, and most of them to specific pieces or artists.

Four of these comments contained a link to other Web pages. For example, there was a comment to one artist: “This reminds me the work of the American artist Melora Kuhn. She also makes animals (monsters and others) painted with people.” Link: Melora Kuhn (

In some cases people added to the comment tags. These tags were mainly used for inserting connections that pieces awoke in visitors. For example the message: “Great for children” that said: “This was by far my favourite piece, so simple and interactive. My daughter enjoyed it a lot.” The tags were: soft, yellow, uterus, mother. (The content of the comments were translated by the authors of this paper to English.)

People also left comments from home. Some of the comments people added from far away stations were very long and thoroughly considered. It seems that for some visitors, the home setting inspired them to write more than the museum setting did. Most of the people we talked to were pleased to have the possibility to leave messages from their house. Allowing and provoking a moment of reflection after the visit was an important part in our concept. We think that the limited number of days that the piece was on-line limited an important flow of comments from far away stations.

We classified the comments into ones that evaluated the exhibition, ones that expressed visitor response to a certain piece or the whole exhibition, and ones that were poetic.

First, the messages that evaluated the exhibition: “Versatile” “Enough innocent and funny works.” We realized that this group’s comments were not the guest book type (“Great, thank you.”). Instead, most of them had been carefully thought out before being posted.

Second, the messages that gave visitors’ personal responses: some of these were personal, such as: “Floating,” “To my mind come the floating tanks that were in fashion and that I always wanted to have (…).” Link: Floating tanks (

Because the length of the comments was not restricted, people could tell stories such as: “Demolish house.”

“This work reminds me of a house that was located on my way to school when I was a small child. It was a house to be torn down. The residents had left the building years ago and now it had been taken over by the kids of the neighbourhood. The house was a terrible mess: graffiti, old furniture, porn magazines, beer bottles... It was a bit scary but somehow a fascinating place. It had no owner and there were no rules. For me it was the one and only place where I could draw on the walls. I could spend hours after school drawing there. This artwork reminds me of those walls. Even the wall paper seems familiar...”

Last, messages that were poetic, inspired by the pieces exhibited: “The cave.”

“In front and more forward, the light makes the way to the nothing. It looks like an analogy to the republic by Plato in between the reality and the illusion. The main image is from the men that see in the wall a cave only the shadows of the true objects that are moving outside the cave. When these men leave the cave and see the real objects, they can’t convince to the ones that have never left the object reality.”

Or the case of: “Rhizome.” “They are like the implants that were born from the rhizome.”

Testing the Piece

Salgado was in the museum for three days out of the four of the exhibition. The first two days she was actively involved in telling about the project and inviting participants to add comments. The third day she was doing passive observation and some interviews of artists and visitors.

Reactions towards the installation were different. Most of the visitors did not approach the stand unless they were invited, while a few left comments without our intervention.

Visitors coming alone, or accompanied by one person, left messages. Visitors coming in groups did not use Keskustelukartta. We believe that this happened because the setting contained only one computer. Future installations with more than one terminal could make people in groups eager to participate.

The installation might be perceived as cold. This could be improved by designing a cosy corner where people could relax while thinking about what to comment.

The leaflet was an important component, as it provided people with a tangible reminder that the Web site was available for further writing, and it provided the Web address.

The feedback we got from the artists and from the museum staff was positive; they were glad to have the piece in the museum. Some of the artists came several times to see if they had received any comments from visitors. Some of the visitors did not see the advantages of having “the computer instead of the book”. Others thought it was a good idea, but the program was too difficult to use. Others left a message and gave the impression that they were comfortable with it.


The richness and number of comments surprised us positively, although our presence in the exhibition inviting visitors to comment likely was a crucial factor in the collection of the content material. Analysis of this material is a part of our future agenda.

The content material was a collage of items coming from museum staff, artists in the exhibition and visitors. Contrary to our expectations, museum staff and the artists were not actively involved in leaving comments. One person from staff felt that if she left a message for one artist, she had to leave comments for all of them. The artists were not well informed about this installation and its possibilities beforehand. They would have liked to have time to think about what to add in Keskustelukartta. During the weekend of workshops in the museum, they were busy with their own presentations. Some of them thought that they could put a link to their Web pages, but they finally did not do it. The reality of having the piece in the exhibition showed us that in order to convince artists and museum staff to record comments, the design of the communication system had to be re-thought.

The first content gathered to the piece is relevant because it influences how later visitors perceive that piece. In this case, we began with a blank page, but we wonder if artist and staff participation before the opening of the exhibition could have sparked the process. We also think that by encouraging the public to ask questions instead of leaving comments, a fluid dialogue with the artists and museum staff could be opened up. In this case, visitors could have the opportunity to read the answers on-line, without having to come back to the museum.

As mentioned above, Keskutelukartta is comprised of several layers. These layers are the installation; the software (ImaNote); the communication system with visitors, artists and museum staff; the context (Taidehalli); and the exhibition (Young Artists Biennale). With this interactive installation we tried to promote a new practice that provokes more involvement from the participants. Careful design of the intervention in its different layers is vital, since they all are interrelated.

Our perspective is user-centred; we want to develop a product that is easy and pleasurable to use. We believe that beginning this project with some days of trial in the context of the Biennale gave us material for understanding future possibilities of Keskustelukartta for other exhibitions. These sorts of tests in real contexts with real people are meaningful steps in our design process.


As Ivan Karp (1992) points out, the tasks of museums involve questioning their own claims about identity and engaging in serious and systematic dialogue with other points of view. Is there a need for tools that allow multiple perspectives to appear in the museum context? That way not only museum staffs and boards (unrepresentative of the multiplicity of our society) have the right to be heard, and a more pluralistic vision can be offered to visitors. Keskustelukartta is an example of such a tool.

There is a whole new field to discover by involving visitors in making the content of the museum visit. Multiple voices for the multiple artefacts in the exhibition can enrich the experience. We believe that these comments are worthwhile to collect because visitors to museums are experts in their own fields, and the connection of their knowledge to the museum piece can enrich the experiences of other visitors. But installations that involve visitors raise questions on the reliability of the sources inside the museum space and on the editing and censorship that can filter the material posted. There are some real challenges here, as well as real opportunities to gather information valuable for future visitors and future exhibitions on related topics. It also could be material for analysing discourses and practices inside museums.

The collection of visitors' comments could be a valuable source of information for future visitors, and future exhibitions on related topics. It also could provide material for analysing discourses and practices inside museums.

Keskustelukartta is a project at the beginning of its development, but we believe that in the future, it can influence museum’s visits positively, giving a fresh touch to exhibition content. Once Keskustelukartta is implemented as a general practice, visitors and the museum institution will generate a new understanding of their respective roles.


We want to thank all the staff in Media Lab, especially Tommi Jauhiainen and Timo Laine. Many thanks to the staff in Taidehalli, particularly to Saara Suojoki and Taru Tappola.

ImaNote is being developed by Systems of Representation ( and Learning Environments ( Research Groups at Media Lab. University of Art and Design Helsinki.


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Cite as:

Salgado M. and Diaz-Kommonen L., Visitors’ Voices, in J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds.). Museums and the Web 2006: Proceedings, Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics, published March 1, 2006 at