Participation: Personalizing the Exhibit Experience

Map model of urban history

Much has been written about participation in the museum as a desire for social interaction. Nina Simon’s “Participatory Museum” is an often quoted reference that has shaped the discourse around this topic. I wish to add another perspective that focuses on a more personal experience where participation is a means of building a relationship between the visitor and the institution. In this article, I borrow more from John Falk work “Identity and the Museum Visitor Experience” rather than from Ms. Simons. I’m interested in investigating how participation can be a role-playing performance of the museum’s mission and thus create stronger bonds between the museum and the visitor.

Finding Personal Relevance
Interactive exhibits and program activities offer museum visitors an opportunity to find personal relevance in the content. Active participation places the visitor in the center of the exhibit content, where there can discover “What does it means to me?” Transformed from observer to participant they adopt a role. And in their role-playing, they can experience the content more directly. For example, an exhibit may ask, “What is it like to be a scientist” or “what was it like to live in the 1700s,” inviting visitors to find connections between themselves and remote experiences and perspectives. Participation personalizes the content, engaging visitors’ sensibilities, temperament and values in their interpretation of the exhibit. They see themselves in the story and make deeper connections with the content. Consequently, the exhibit experience is more memorable and impactful. 

Discovering Social Value
Interactive installations and other participatory elements add social context to exhibits. Each visitor’s participation is a performance that can be enjoyed by other visitors. And through those performances and VGCs (visitor generated content), visitors add value to the exhibit. When visitors view such participation they appreciate the broader relevance of the exhibit and how it appeals to other people. It also begins to answer the question, “Why is it important to know this?” Through their own participation, visitors explore what the exhibit content means to them. From other visitors’ interactions they see how the content makes connections and triggers different reactions in others. They also begin to see the social importance of the topic.

As the audience participates with gallery interactives and program activities, they are discovering: “What does it means to me?”


Performing the Museum’s Mission
Visitor interactions can further the museum’s mission in other direct ways. Many museums seek to have a specific and beneficial impact on the communities they serve. For example, the National Constitution Center wishes to make betters citizens of its visitors. All of NCC’s interactives are about performing citizenry. As visitors participate in the museum’s programs, they act out the role of being better citizens. Art museums are on the mission to “.” Their interactive exhibits and activities accomplish those goals directly. In this manner participation is a way of defining the museum’s relationship with its community. It serves as a powerful brand message as well. By committing to their performances visitors are vouching for the institution and what it stands for—they begin to own the museum’s mission as their own.

Social Participation: In Lab environments visitors role play the process of innovation.Social Participation: The Indianapolis Public Library’s “Tech- Lab” environments, where visitors role-play the process of innovation



participatory-museum-exhibit-design-me2Performing the Museum’s Mission: Honoring veterans in an exhibit makes evident the social value of understanding history.