April 9-12, 2008
Montréal, Québec, Canada

Breaking Apart Participation in Museums

Mariana Salgado, Media Lab, University of Art and Design, Helsinki, Finland


It is now common to include the visitor to a museum by means of new technologies and the possibilities they afford. Visitors’ voices on exhibitions can be heard both on-site and on-line. This paper presents and compares interactive design pieces that intend to motivate visitors to participate in co-creating the message of the museum by leaving in-depth commentaries.

Design options are chosen as parameters for comparison because they affect participation and therefore the museum visit experience. The design options relate to the theme chosen for participation and how openly this theme is presented, as well as the atmosphere of the piece, the input-output modalities, the on-site or on-floor configurations, the accessibility and the ties with the time of the visit and with the larger community.

Designers geared towards creating or using tools that encourage participation must be aware that all design options modify responses. Comparing these projects is a way to point out how interactive pieces can affect visitors’ participation in the museum and with it the experience of the visit.

Keywords: participation, interactive design, museum experience, accessibility, social technology


As part of my research I was involved in producing concepts and prototypes that delve deeply into participation. I made a selection of projects and compared them in order to obtain a broader vision of participation and begin to build a framework to understand it in relation to the exhibition context and to related on-line materials. This comparison is mainly based on readings about the projects described and not on actual use of or participation in them. In this paper, I make reference to some interactive design pieces that allow participants (visitors or museum staff) to make in-depth commentaries and share them with other visitors.

The idea of investigating this issue came from a simple observation: a visit to an exhibition changes a great deal, depending on whom we are with. It is very different if we go to see art with an artist friend, if we go with our children, or parents, or another friend, or alone. The conversations about the exhibition elicited by what we see can be registered on-site, as sound, writings, drawings and video traces. Thus, others can have access to these opinions and comment on them. At the same time, many specialists go to exhibitions in their own fields; if one visits an anthropology museum, for example, one will mostly certainly come across an anthropologist. Hence, tools that allow the audience to make their small contributions or leave their marks could give access to the knowledge of experts who visit the exhibition.

Until recently, visitors to exhibitions and museums were relegated to the role of observers. That means that, usually, visitors’ contributions were neither considered nor solicited. Currently, though, there are some isolated cases where the audience’s participation forms a part of a work of art. Yet this participation is limited by the conditions and the possibilities proposed by the artist. In reaction, and probably as a consequence of widespread participation in making and spreading content on the Internet, a new tendency has gradually emerged. It entails the active inclusion of the visitors by means of new social technologies and the possibilities they afford. Exhibiting on-site is museums’ traditional area of expertise, but displaying their knowledge on-line using Web 2.0 language and resources is relatively new.

Participation in exhibitions through interactive design pieces might entail commenting on blogs or wikis (, tagging, bookmarking (Filippini-Fantoni and Bowen, 2007), sharing images (, videos or photos, sending e-cards, sending e-mails (Filippini-Fantoni and Bowen, 2007), sending postcards (, making your own gallery (, collaborative mapping (Salgado and Diaz, 2006), or personalizing a museum tour (Aroyo, L. et al, 2007) or audio tour (Samis and Pau, 2006) for creating content.

Sometimes visitors want to say something, and sometimes they would rather be passive viewers. Participating is not for everyone, and certainly not for everyone at all times. A piece inspires them, brings back a memory that they might want to share.

The interactive pieces chosen for this comparison are part of the following projects: Science Buzz (the site of the Science Museum of Minnesota, USA)(Von Appen et al, 2006), Room of Opinion in Re-tracing the past (exhibition at the Hunt Museum, Limerick, Ireland)(Ferris et al, 2004), Conversational Map in Small Heaven (exhibition in Taidehalli, Helsinki, Finland) (Salgado and Diaz, 2006), Art cast series (Podcasting in San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, USA) (Samis and Pau, 2006), Moving Here (on-line exhibition, UK)(Alain and Foggett, 2007), and Art Work Communication System Using Mobile Phone (exhibition at the Museum of Municipal Art of Toyota, Japan)( Fushimi et al, 2006). Through these pieces, visitors can decide if they want to listen to what the artists have to say about their work, or what the curator, the researcher, the museum conservationist, and/or other visitors of the same age have to say about it. These projects serve as tools for understanding participation in a designerly way.

Design Options

Certain design decisions are key to participation. The design options are taken as parameters for comparison because they affect participation and therefore the museum visit experience.

The parameters are:

  • Theme chosen for participation, and the openness with which it is presented
  • Atmosphere of the piece
  • Input-output modalities
  • On-line and/or on-site configurations
  • Accessibility
  • Ties to the actual time of the visit
  • Ties to the community.

The topic is a crucial stimulus to participation. There are certain themes that both spark the personal interest of the visitors and satisfy the needs of the museum researchers. When these themes are dealt with, the exhibition is not presented as a complete and closed statement, but solicits visitors’ contributions. Both the topic chosen and the openness with which it is presented can goad participation. Another issue is how the theme of a discussion is relevant to the exhibition’s overall message. Visitors could be asked to give a commentary on a topic that is essential to the exhibition or be asked about a secondary topic.

These interactive design pieces have a certain feeling or atmosphere. Atmosphere necessarily connects with the question of stand design (lights, sounds, colors, and props elements around the physical stand), its location in the physical exhibition, the software (if there is software running on a mobile phone, PDA, or computer), the devices used, the nature of the exhibition where the interactive piece is placed, and the content material gathered.

There are different input modalities such as leaving an audio, video or written comment to frame the result. Also important is the way that visitors are asked to participate. Giving visitors a specific task to perform will elicit a different response than asking a straightforward question or just showing other visitors’ comments.

External factors also influence how to motivate visitors’ participation. For example, in cases where the object exhibited (work of art, historical artifact or other) cannot be used on-line to elicit comments, provocative questions could lead to fruitful discussion. Output modalities are the ones that relates to the navigation, shareability and visibility of the materials left by the visitors at the exhibition or in other media channels such as Internet. Visitors create material that can be shown to others (family and friends, or anonymous others) or kept to themselves after the visit. These materials are sent to the visitor by e-mail, enjoyed in situ, or accessed on the museum’s Web site.

Designing how the material is managed is a crucial issue. It includes the visibility and classification of the messages (how they are displayed: by relevancy, by date produced, or by author, or according to other criteria), moderation guidelines (who decides and selects messages, selection criteria), and publication delay (how long it takes to publish a comment after it is produced).

Configurations can mix on-line (leaving messages on the Web site) and on-site (leaving messages in situ, at the exhibition) materials. Configurations vary, depending on the media involved and the devices used for allowing participation as mobile phones, PDAs (Personal Digital Assistants), PMP (Portable Media Player), and fixed stands in the museum space. Location-based systems can address to certain pieces, or guide the navigation inside the exhibition. The interactive pieces can be single or multi-user, thus influencing how groups interact at the exhibition.

Museums have other means, such as publications and souvenirs, to engage the visitor after the visit. Interactive pieces connect visitors with the time of the visit while they leave messages on-site or on-line. Visitors might return to the Web site after the visit to add something to their message, or else to see other visitors’ comments about their previous comment. Interactive pieces can also be used before the visit. Visitors can visit the Web site with comments or questions about the exhibition before going to see it. These comments can lead people to pay special attention to certain pieces they read comments about on at the Web site. In parallel we have to consider the moment in time the visitor meets the interactive piece (whether the piece is in blank or full of comments). The tone and style of the first comments gathered will influence future material.

Accessibility And Community Involvement

Accessibility involves issues related to visitors with perceptual, cognitive and/or motor disabilities, as well as varying degrees of computer literacy and familiarity with the devices and technology involved. The interactive piece at the exhibition (including the software, stand and device) as well as the Web site needs to consider issues of accessibility.

Non-frequent visitors to the museum are intimidated by the exhibitions and find them difficult to access (Hooper-Greenhill, 1994, p.33). New social technologies in the exhibition context should aim to facilitate access to the exhibition’s materials, and be aware of visitors’ levels of computer literacy. Finding personal comments left by other visitors motivates the use of new technology and makes the exhibition material easier to approach. In this way the intimidating barrier breaks. About this, Fushimi (Fushimi et al, 2006) states: “the vocabulary of the viewer allows visitors to connect to the work in a different way”.

There are many ways the community can take part in an exhibition. Indeed, the core of many exhibitions is built in cooperation with the community (Hooper-Greenhill, 1994, p. 22): the future visitor produces the content and hence develops a commitment to the exhibition. This is the case of the ExhibitCommons project (LaBar, 2006),where future visitors design and create exhibits. If the dialogue with the community starts before the exhibition is installed, it is easier to use interactive pieces to continue. But, by connecting users’ on-line and on-site participation, this engagement can also be achieved after the exhibition is up (Von Appen et al, 2006).

Another strategy for community involvement is ICT training courses (Alain and Foggett, 2007) which can create content for exhibition. In the case of “The secret life of objects” at the Design Museum in Helsinki (, workshops were organized in close collaboration with the interactive piece at the exhibition. Hence, the result of the workshops and the material collected in them could be seen, listened to and commented on both on-line and on-site.

Issues of accessibility and community involvement are not on the comparison table because they require deep analysis both on-site and on-line.

Projects Compilation

The projects described below show different ways that visitors participate in exhibitions by leaving in-depth comments. Each of these projects opens up the possibility of a dialogue with the artists, curators, designers, educators, researchers, and on-line and on-site visitors. Each one of these projects has unique characteristics, target group, and focuses. All of them entail opening up dialogues and discussions related to the exhibitions.

Science Buzz (2004-present) (Von Appen et al, 2006) is a site built by the Science Museum of Minnesota ( that uses a blog, Buzz Blog, to allow visitors to leave comments. The project networks the exhibitions with an active on-line community commenting and asking questions in the form of blog or poll. Here, visitors to the Science Museum of Minnesota can leave questions for scientists at stands distributed throughout the exhibition. To complete the process, scientists answer the questions and the visitors can look at their responses and dialogues on the Internet or during their next museum visit. The discussion is interesting as it offers new perspectives on each topic. Many visitors to the Web site have become active members of the community, committed to the virtual and real museum. The Science Buzz project stands and blog connect visitors’ curiosity with experts’ knowledge.

Retracing the past: exploring objects, stories, mysteries (June 2003) was an exhibition held in the Hunt Museum (Ferris et al, 2004). The Hunt Museum and the Interaction Design Centre of the University of Limerick, in Ireland, jointly developed this exhibition. At that exhibition there was a Room of Opinion where visitors could leave a message about the nature and possible use of some mysterious objects. Comments were collected, and visitors could listen to them in real time through a radio in the Study Room. The sound of earlier opinions also generated a sort of murmur that was heard in the same room. Comments were made using an interactive telephone. A visual analogue of the process of storing the comments could be seen in a dynamic graphic display representing a visual trace of these opinions. Visitors could see and listen to their own comments recorded.

Conversational Map (November 2005) (Salgado and Diaz, 2006) could be explored and commented on during four days of the Young Artists’ Biennale: Small Heaven in Taidehalli, Helsinki. The Systems of Representation Research Group of the Media Lab at the University of Art and Design, Helsinki, developed this interactive piece, using ImaNote software ( Visitors entering the museum hall saw a map of the exhibition projected on the wall. Visitors could navigate that map, and then they, as well as the museum staff, could add comments and links so that, for example, a comment about a sculpture could be linked to a song a visitor associates with the work of art. Comments referred to one of the pieces exhibited or to the whole exhibition, and visitors could see these comments while navigating the map. Artists visited frequently to navigate the map and see the comments left on it. Traces left at the exhibition could be accessed from home, before or after the visit. Many visitors even visited the Web site from their own computers in order to leave longer comments.

Art Cast Series (2005- present) (Samis and Pau, 2006) is a collaboration between the Interactive Educational Technologies team in San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) and Bay Area audio experts Antenna Audio, Inc. Art Cast Series is part of an exploration into the possibilities of podcasting to offer alternative audio tours to museum visitors. In the Arcast series, the Vox Pop category is for audience comments; the Guest Takes category is for the comments of invited guests, and the Artcast Invitational category is for submitting carefully composed standalone contributions. In one of the trials, pictures accompanied the sound tracks. The bonus track is another category that consists of a loosely structured audio tour with the voice of the artist.

Moving Here (2005-2007)(Alain and Foggett, 2007) includes five regional projects involving museums, archives and libraries throughout England. Several partners worked with the project’s development ( Visitors were encouraged to leave the stories of their own migration on the Web site and to add their own materials, such as photos, poems, drawings, etc. Visitors could link the material in the archive using, for example, the Tracing Your Roots tool to reconstruct a migration story. Training sessions were organized around England in order to allow people with different computer skills to visit and participate in the exhibition. There were also ICT training lessons on-line to help visitors to use the site. Half of the material was collected during the ICT sessions and half from Internet surfers.

Art Communication System with Mobile Phones (2005-present) (Fushimi et al, 2006) is being developed by the Hiroshima Kokusai Gakuin University and the Nagoya University at the Toyota Municipal Museum of Art. Using this system, the visitor could leave text messages about two works of art. In a first evaluation in December 2005, the idea was that visitors wrote what they felt on a mobile phone. Visitors were encouraged to respond to the prompt: “Please, write what you felt”; “Please choose an observing point and read the comment”. Later, visitors were asked to classify their messages by topic: artist, model, background, figure, colour, material or other. Visitors used a map to find the works in the exhibition. The target visitor was unfamiliar with art appreciation. Visitors in front of a work of art could read about the sensations experienced by others. According to Fushimi, observation of this project’s functioning suggests that visitors can expand their knowledge by listening to the impressions of others.


Design Options
Buzz Conver-
sational Map
Moving Here Art Cast Series Room of Opinions Art
Comm. System
Theme Comments/ questions about scientific topics Open comments about art works Personal stories of migration Comments/ tours about art work Opinion about mysterious objects Feelings after art work appre-ciation
Playful, informal + profess-ional Minimal stand (computer hidden, keyboard + wall projection) Serious + profess-
ional style / fresh details
Targeted for young people Old telephone - fits with exhibition’s content Informal + profess-
ional interface
Input Written text (computer keyboard) Audio Written text (mobile phone)
Output Stand + computer screen from remote station Computer screen Ipods (in the Museum or remote access) Listened: murmur + through radio+ dinamic visualization Text in mobile phones
Moderated messages quick immediate publication publication
On-site + on-line
Moderated messages (slow publication time)
Different material for each case
On-site +
Last messages are listened first
Messages published inme-
Device Fixed stands + remote computer station Remote computer station Loaned Ipods Old telephone + big screen + loud speakers Loaned mobile phones
Time Before + during + after the visit During the visit

Fig 1: Design comparison

This table contains a synthesis of the material analyzed. On the x-axis are the projects and on the y-axis there are the design options.

The themes of the projects are quite different, but they all motivate visitors to give personal insights based on their curiosity, opinions, critiques, casual observations, memories and feelings.

The atmosphere of these projects is the result of a coherent selection of the components that make up these interactive pieces. In these projects, the components are the stand, devices and software in use, the in-put and out-put modalities, the theme chosen and the style of the audible, visual or written material. The atmosphere of a certain stand can be in keeping with the exhibition, or attempt to clash with it. For example, in the case of Art Communication System, the vocabulary used and the interface of the software have an informal style. This contrasts with the classic art in the exhibition. The informality is used for drawing the visitor not familiar to art appreciation in to the work of art.

In-puts and out-puts can use different modalities to motivate visitors with special skills and needs. For example, designers and visual artists benefit from interactive pieces that allow them to express their thoughts and arguments in pictures or videos since that is part of their practice. Other examples are making use of audio to include visually impaired visitors (Salgado and Kellokoski, 2005), or involving young people in the creation of podcastings for museums as in the Art Cast Series.

In design there are always trade-offs. Selecting design solutions geared to a particular audience always risks excluding other visitors. One solution might be to include multimodal formats and different, yet interconnected, modalities and configurations, thus allowing more visitors access. Fisher and Twiss-Garrity (2007) use the term remix to refer to the process of understanding, interpreting and making a coherent narrative by means of the technology and materials offered by the exhibition. Visitors’ remixes are motivated insofar as their personal needs and practices are considered.

On-site and on-line configurations open up the opportunity to connect with visitors’ thoughts after their visits. What thoughts have been awakened by a certain exhibition? Which artifact/idea inspired those thoughts?

The management of comments influences visitors’ responses: seeing/listening to comments immediately after they are created and published seems to be a positive factor.

It is not particularly productive to compare isolated design options in order to draw conclusions since all these projects work in relation to their own context of use (the exhibitions). Each project took shape with a coherent choice of design options. For example, in Art Communication System (Fushimi et al, 2006) the device used is a mobile phone, which is mainly a single user device. Therefore the personal question,“What do you feel?” is appropriate.

In some exhibitions, visitors were asked to comment by writing on post-it notes which were then placed on a board (Byatt, 2005). In these cases, participation is active, probably more active than when a keyboard for typing in opinions is offered. Yet the possibility of making full use of the material and navigating it during and after the exhibition is limited. Navigating different formats implies challenges.

Future Opportunities

Through open, interactive participation, exhibitions cease to be products shut off the day of the supposed “opening” and become, instead, living entities that change with the interpretation of the participants both during their visit and afterwards. What are the dialogues that museums seek to motivate through their exhibitions?

On the one hand, displaying visitors’ messages is a way to respect their opinions and generate commitment and confidence. How are the visitors’ interpretations modified once comments are shared with future visitors? How is the museum experience modified once visitors participate actively as co-authors of the exhibition message?

On the other hand, likely outcomes of interactive pieces are, for example, debates and discussions among current, past and future visitors. Once compiled, this material can allow the museum to study its audience and get to know its visitors more specifically, not just as a demographic block. Visitors’ subjective perspectives and special interests are included. Visitors’ comments can also provide material about the theme of the exhibition, material that can then be used to design future exhibitions or to shed light on how to analyse practices and discourses within the museum. How can the museum use and benefit from the material collected by these new social technologies?

Once these tools for active participation are firmly established as part of museums, it will be possible to generate a new understanding of roles (whether the audience’s or the staff’s), and will lead to mutual enrichment. How do we motivate the inclusion of the larger community around the museum?

Museums could participate in the discussion that otherwise takes place in other forums (Von Appen et al, 2006). Hence, museums can affect the discussion about their exhibits, sharing their expertise with active members of the audience. Conversely, while implementing these interactive tools, museums are influencing their design and development in order to better suit special needs. How will social technologies develop in the museum context?

Participation opens the exhibition up to subjective interpretations from visitors or from the museum staff. It is a means to access other audiences (children, teens, senior citizens, people with special needs, etc), to make a place for the unexpected, for discordances or for controversy, and for a collaborative mode of gathering knowledge, both after and before the visit. How will the discussions and the dialogues that open up through visitors’ comments become part of the narrative of the exhibition?

Concluding Thoughts

Visitors are more and more prepared to interact with new social technologies in the context of museum exhibitions. Once they have had positive experiences with these technologies, they are not afraid to participate in interactive pieces.

Familiarity with making comments in other contexts (T.V or Internet forums) positively influences museum participation. If the design pieces are user-friendly, they provide beginners with an easy way to explore new social technologies. Since the activity is geared towards a familiar topic- participants have already visited the exhibition- there is no need to search for the forum to use. The possibility lies before them.

Interactive pieces open up the possibility to start or continue visitors’ exploration; they are a sort of hook that calls visitors to participate, or a way to educate them.

Exploring configurations that connect the museum visit experience with on-line discussion offers several benefits:

  1. making interactive design pieces accessible to visitors not familiar with these tools and resources,
  2. engaging visitors already familiar with them,
  3. offering reference material that enriches and focuses the discussion by means of visual, audio, or interactive data in the exhibit or on-line,
  4. extending the museum visit experience to the period after or before it,
  5. including visitors who are not yet a part of the exhibition’s community,
  6. motivating visitors to further their knowledge about the exhibition and
  7. opening communication channels between visitors and museum staff.

Designers geared towards creating or using tools that encourage participation must be aware that all design options (the theme chosen for participation and the openness with which it is presented, the piece’s atmosphere, the input-output modalities, the on-line or on-site configurations, the accessibility, the ties with the time of the visit and the ties with the community) modify responses.

The sense of belonging and the confidence produced by visitor participation in the exhibition’s discussion and by knowing that their opinions are respected positively affects engagement with the exhibition and the institution that holds it. It is a feedback loop in which visitors participate by creating knowledge that in turn makes the exhibition a richer, more active and inspiring experience for future audiences.


Many thanks to Prof. Lily Diaz, Timo Rantalaiho and Jane Brodie.


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Cite as:

Salgado, M., Breaking Apart Participation in Museums, in J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds.). Museums and the Web 2008: Proceedings, Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. Published March 31, 2008. Consulted