April 13-17, 2010
Denver, Colorado, USA

Can Social Media Transform the Exhibition Development Process? Cooking: the Exhibition – An Ongoing Case Study

Wayne LaBar, Liberty Science Center, United States of America


Liberty Science Center (LSC) embarked four years ago on an ongoing effort to engage the general public in the creation of the exhibition experience at its institution. The science center was interested in leveraging the open source, personal choice, large group participation movement . One variation that LSC has now embarked on is an ongoing experiment surrounding its new exhibition: Cooking: the Exhibition. All work on the project and all coordinating communications primarily occur on the Web site and are open to the public.

The result has been public participation in a larger way than with any previous exhibition for LSC or, we believe, other exhibitions. The exhibition has a larger group supplying concepts, and there is more opportunity for connections. Outcomes such as interested members becoming integral project partners and paying  physical visits to the museum offices have occurred through this process. It has also placed a larger management challenge on staff; questions of confidentiality in the museum field, privacy, and rights have arisen as well. The project continues to be a research project as well as a creative work in progress.

Keywords: social media, public, engagement, process, exhibition.


Four years ago Liberty Science Center (LSC) was underway with a major renovation and reimagining of its mission and the experiences it provided the public. This corresponded to a $104 million dollar expansion and renovation of the institution’s building and experiences. This significant renewal, an almost “from the ground up” experience, offered the science center the opportunity to experiment with the exhibition process in light of the significant changes that were being observed in the public users’ dialogue and conversation with each other and content creators – of which a museum is certainly one.

Currently LSC is underway with exhibition design and development of Cooking: the Exhibition. It focuses on the science and technology of, as well as cultural aspects and issues that surround, this everyday activity that we all depend on and enjoy. From the very beginning a social media Web site was created to serves as the project Web site for the team. But just as important, the Web site was made public, and all comers were welcome to participate in the process. By public, we refer to anyone who is not a member of LSC staff. From joining meetings to reviewing material, members of the Web site have been involved in development of the exhibition to date.


  • The first major trend that the Science Center considered was the rise of publicly generated content and the desire by the public to be engaged in this effort – a situation which increasingly continues to this day. The rise of YouTube, personal blogs, and such Web sites as Flickr are evidence of this trend. Meanwhile corporations have also begun to incorporate this social phenomenon into their business. Some examples, among numerous others, are the LEGO Group involving LEGO® Club members ( in the creation of new kits, or CNN seeking and using viewer-created videos that document news events. By looking at Web sites and phenomena such as Twitter, Facebook and blogs where direct feedback to the author or between ‘consumers’ of content is available, it is also clear that the public enjoys personal “nonprofessional” content and the interactivity possible.
  • The second trend, with perhaps a more obvious connection to museums, was the rise of the “long tail” in terms of interest and content. This was most broadly presented and examined in the book of the same title (Anderson, 2006) by the editor of Wired Magazine. As Anderson describes, the public has, through the ability of our networks, begun to pursue particular interests and concerns that individually appeal to them. This segments the market place for business, but additionally from a content perspective it has created audience members who are experts in narrow fields. In fact, for broadly based institutions such as science centers, with no curators on staff, members of the public could quite easily have more knowledge on a subject than any staff member. One might even say that the ability for individuals to do this and to gain a more public audience has created a new phenomena called “public curators.”

Exhibit Commons

As part of its expansion, LSC launched an effort called “Exhibit Commons” to experiment with the relationship between an institution and the public in content and experience creation, as well as in discovering how a museum might tap into these new public curators and bring their expertise to the science center. Specifically, could content and experience creation be incorporated into the very experiences the public finds on the museum exhibition floor? As these become more and more a part of everyday life, museums must learn not only how to incorporate them, but also how to innovate with them.

A focal point for The Exhibit Commons effort at LSC was to utilize the Internet to the degree possible in this exploration. This was due to both the familiarity the public would have with the Internet as a stage for public participations – creating a lower barrier to involvement and allowing the science center to reach out to a great many people (locally and globally) – and to the resources and tools that simplified the process:  especially important at its inception in 2005 with a museum expansion underway.

Two Experiments

Public creation of content

The current project in public engagement with the exhibition process was impacted by the results we received in two early experiments started in 2005. The first of these was to determine if the public would be engaged in the public creation of content and interacting with others’ content as part of the on-site museum experience. Would the opportunity to create or interact with the opinions or creative works of other museum visitors in a paid experience be as successful as what we were seeing in Web sites such as EOpinion, Amazon, TripAdvisor and others? As part of the new experiences in LSC’s renewal, the exhibition team began in to identify and design key opportunities where the public could do exactly this. The creation and engagement of public content was found in four exhibits: Create a Pictogram; How Do You Communicate?; Make Your Point; and Fond Memories (LaBar, 2007). Three of these were in the Communication exhibition, and the final one was in the Skyscraper! Achievement and Impact exhibition. Staff observations to this day, as well as testimonials and review of the created content, made it apparent that these experiences were popular and that there seemed to be little issue in the public’s eye that the experience was not created by museum staff, but by their fellow visitors. Therefore our first key observation was:

  • Visitors are willing to create content and interact with other visitors’ content. These creative elements need not come from the authority of the museum to be perceived as of value in a visit.


The second early experiment was an attempt to marry both the reach of the Internet with the phenomenon known in the technological world as “hacking.” By “hacking” we refer not to the notion of “hacking” into a secure private Web site or database for the purposes of mischievous or destructive behavior. Rather, in this experiment “hacking” referred to the very public (albeit sometimes not legal) effort by some to determine how certain technological devices operate in order to allow for personalization of these devices to enhance or increase their capabilities. The ‘jaibreaking’ of iPhones to allow for unregulated software to be installed on these devices is a current example.

In this experiment, certain exhibits were listed on the Science Center’s Web site as being open for public modification or ‘hacking.’ The Science Center was open to allowing visitors to understand how an exhibit operated in order to permit them to experiment and create a new ways it could operate. In terms of the Internet/social phenomena mentioned at the beginning of this paper, this was an effort to engage the ‘public curators’ of technology in creating part of the exhibition experience. The focus of this project was on an exhibit known as Electronic Graffiti.

Simulating actual graffiti by using digital ‘spray cans’ on a large projection of a brick wall, the exhibit was one that allowed for a variety of changes. On the center’s Web site visitors were instructed that if they desired to try their hand at modifying the programming, they could contact the center to receive an emulator that they could then use as a starting point to reprogram. To this day there has only been one real attempt at this activity, and it was organized by a school group. Compared to the success of other creative endeavors visitors were engaging in, a primary observation was:

  • If we seek to engage the public in creative enterprises for the museum floor, the threshold should be low.

Lessons Learned

Using these lessons, LSC has now embarked on a new experiment that already and dramatically has impacted not only the exhibition that will be on the museum floor, but  the  staff and institution as well. The decision in this third experiment was to attempt to involve the public in the creation of the experience on the exhibition floor from the initial start of the development and design process. Here was going to be an attempt to more fully utilize both tools of engagement and creation from the Internet along with a variety of levels of content expertise from the public before any finished experience. The tool that was at the core for this experiment was to be a social media Web site, similar to Facebook, that would allow a wide variety of individuals, from wherever, to participate and share content as well as use the Web site to become team members in the exhibition creation process. The project that this is being tested on is LSC’s oncoming development of a new experience called Cooking: the Exhibition.

Cooking: the Exhibition

Cooking: the Exhibition will explore the science, technology and culture that underlie the one of humanity’s most important inventions – preparing one’s meal. Currently LSC is in the midst of schematic design, having completed conceptual design of the exhibition. Cooking will open in 2011 and tour internationally, and potentially even have multiple copies for greater reach.


The choice of tools in this exhibition were directly the result of our previous two experiments in public engagement. First, we knew having the public co-create the exhibition to the greatest extent possible would not be seen detrimentally by the public and in fact could create excitement. But to do so we need to make sure that the threshold was not high. Therefore the decision was to use social media in this exhibition because from the beginning a variety of people have skills, interest and knowledge.

Therefore at the start of the exhibition development process, a social media Web site was created using the popular site Ning. In the summer of 2008, the site Cooking: the Exhibition Chefs ( was developed by the author without internal or external IT support.

The other key decision made in order to facilitate exploring public engagement was the making of the site as THE project Web site for science center staff. This site is where all LSC staff post documents to share and where notes, ideas, meeting times, papers and other aspects of the exhibition development and design process are distributed. For example, rather than setting meetings via interoffice systems, all meetings are scheduled through the Web site. This is in order to make the process as transparent and accessible as possible to Web site members. Additionally, call in numbers and desktop sharing connections are distributed via the Web site for every meeting as well, allowing members to participate by voice and visually.

LSC intends to continue this experiment and this engagement through the entire process of creating the exhibition. As part of the exhibition project, LSC has hired Oregon State University to conduct a study, observing the results of engaging the public – looking at the level of involvement by the public, the impact on the exhibition, as well as the impact on the exhibition development process, and the impact on museum staff. This study is ongoing, and a paper will be issued at the conclusion of the opening of the exhibition. Meanwhile, already the Science Center has observed several points of interest to be shared with those intending to attempt some variation of this process.


The subject of an exhibition will be important to the scale of engaging the public but location or institution less so.

As mentioned,the subject of food and Cooking was deemed to have high potential for this process. At 460+ members as of this writing, this appears to be the case. The fact that many of these individuals appear not to be knowledgeable in content specifically related to the exhibition supports this thought. Another finding is that there is a  significant number of members who have never visited LSC or are not in the area. This shows that use of the Web allows for a widely separated group to come together around exhibition development and weakens any geographic boundaries or allegiances to local institutions.


While starting the process to “engage the general public,” the idea of a public curator becomes quickly evident albeit in different subjects.  This has implications for achieving an institution’s mission through this process.

When the project was begun, the idea was to engage the “public” without thought about what was meant by the word “public.” In simplest terms, it meant people outside of the LSC exhibition team and members of other museums that might be embedded in the project (there were none at the start). As should have been expected, though, what has occurred is that levels of engagement reflect personal relevance to the project and the concept of public curators. Members, it appears, can divided into three categories

  • Public Curators: Those who have an intense or deep interest in the subject. Their engagement in the process can be deep, or more as an observer. These include individuals for whom:
    • Cooking is a pastime, hobby, personal passion
    • Cooking is a profession – chefs, cooks, restaurant owners, etc.
  • Professional Curators: Individuals in the museum business who participate because they like the content or the process or want to have the exhibition at their museum. Select members are fully engaged or are observers.
  • Other connections: These individual have connections to the people or institution involved in the process. They have no deep connection to the subject matter or process and are almost entirely observers. This includes family members of team members, members of the museum, and friends of staff.

What remains to be studied is how and in what manner this helps the museum advance its mission. Because the Web allows for laser-like choice of engagement in a subject, this process has little chance of touching a member of the public who has no interest in the subject. This is one of the advantages of visiting a physical location like a museum, stumbling upon the unexpected.


Creating a public site for a project breaks down traditional work/home barriers further for the museum professional.

While newer generations may not see this as particularly strange, with the openness of private events and happenings as published in locations such as Facebook, the concept of family members being involved directly in one’s professional work could result in some interesting situations. Suggestions of conflicts of interest or nepotism need to be closely monitored.


Those members of the “public” who become fully engaged migrate categories and eventually become “internal” team members.

As noted previously, members of the public, no matter what the category, tend to be either fully engaged or observers. There appears to be little middle ground at this point. For those who become fully engaged, their involvement and the commitment they bring to the project become indispensible to the team. As a result, these public members are given more and more responsibility, and in time can migrate to becoming internal members of the project. This means they can actually become paid members of the project. This is truly a transition from “public curator” to curator! For the Cooking project, members who started as the public have become museum partners and  program developers, written into NSF grants and involved in other “internal” actions.


The idea of a social media Web site has allowed for a variety of interaction with the public. The use of Ning as the site allowed for a quick implementation and allows for current flexibility, albeit within the confines of the programming.

As of this writing, there is no section of the Web site that members have not used. Whether it be posting photos, videos, blogging, commenting, friending – all aspects of the site have been used, leading to an observation that this was a strong platform for  structuring public involvement in the process. The ease of use of the site has aided its creation and allowed for changes when necessary. Already, though, there are limitations to how well a social site can be structured to share important information on a project. This remains a constant stress point for accomplishing the work that is necessary.


As the project moves into different phases of development and design,n there is constant reexamining of how to keep members involved.

Each phase of exhibition development brings new challenges and new areas of work that must be completed. What remains to be seen is how well each of these phases can be opened up to involve members of the site. It is LSC’s view that no matter how one engages with process – observer to fully immersed – there should a means to participate. As a result, one of our steps is a constant reexamination of what is working for Web members as well as for team members at the science center. Additionally, looking to the future when there are more outside fabricators and firms involved in the project, how this will be opened up is still to be determined.


Once a process such as this is started, there are demands and thoughts of what should always remain open to all. In fact, there are aspects of museum work that have not been open to others in the field, but there are advantages.

While it is common knowledge that exhibition programs throughout the museum field have borrowed or copied from each other, there are growing changes in this area of ownership. As institutions market their exhibitions, their specific exhibit elements or their design capabilities, more attention is being paid to intellectual property. Additionally, when competitive grants are pursued for a project, there have been traditional concerns about not revealing information to competitive organizations. To date, the Cooking team has decided not to focus on these concerns. In fact, early drafts and now final drafts of its submission to NSF are posted to allow members to see what was intended with this potential funding source. By doing so the team found it possible to have members not associated with the grant submission review and comment on late drafts. This improved the quality of the submission.

Workload and Work Process

Obviously the use of a social media Web site and the inclusion of the public in  the process have increased workload amongst the in-house team and complicated in-meeting communications. Correspondingly, it has improved team documentation and communication.

As one might expect, it is an ongoing job (split amongst several in-house team members, including the author) to review and manage the social media Web site – not a small task. As expected, the members play important roles in adding content. Additionally, workload has created, with a loss of efficiency, due to the fact that staff can’t use the center’s office suite of software. On the other hand, the needs to keep members informed, to schedule upcoming meetings and events, and to seek feedback through the Web site have resulted in better documentation and discipline in issuing notes, meeting minutes, drawings, etc. This has helped the development and design process and provided ready access to materials when members were on the road in a way that was not true in earlier projects.

Content, Ideas, Contacts and More

Probably most important, the inclusion of the public in our process has made the cooking exhibition become more than it would have been without it. This is probably one of the most important results.

As a result of starting Cooking: the Exhibition Chefs, there has been an increase in the content researched, the numbers of ideas considered, the materials reviewed,  community contacts made, and more leads for fundraising and development, and  expanded outreach to the community – even in this early stage. Aspects of this continue daily as new members join and suggest concepts or offer assistance. Daily blog posts bring from external members ideas that would not normally have been found just by staff.

What also cannot be overlooked are the emotional and social aspects that the site has provided the exhibition process. It feels as though a community, as much as an exhibition team, has been created. Meeting members physically rather than virtually, the shipping of food to the team members, and the desire for group dinners provide evidence of this community aspect. While the importance of this is hard to measure, it has made this development and design process more exciting and enjoyable.


While certainly the verdict is still out as to the actual measurable impacts on the exhibition process and the exhibition itself, at this early stage the creation of the social Web site for Cooking could be considered a success. While certainly there are challenges and much remains to be worked out as the exhibition process continues, the benefits that accrued to the project are numerous and continue to mount.

Future papers will examine the completed project and indicate  exactly where this led, but certainly what has occurred is only an amuse-bouche to what the final outcome will be for Cooking.


Anderson, Chris. The Long Tail. New York, NY: Hyperion, 2006. Print.

LaBar, Wayne. "Exhibit Commons: Liberty Science Center's Open Source Experiment." Visitor Voices in Museum Exhibitions. Washington, DC: Association of Science-Technology Centers, 2007. 140-44. Print. LEGO Club: Cool Creations. LEGO Club: Home. Web. Consulted 15 Jan. 2010.

Cite as:

LaBar, W., Can Social Media Transform the Exhibition Development Process? Cooking: the Exhibition – An Ongoing Case Study. In J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds). Museums and the Web 2010: Proceedings. Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. Published March 31, 2010. Consulted