Encyclopedia of Science Education

Living Edition
| Editors: Richard Gunstone

Interactive Exhibits

  • Sue AllenEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-007-6165-0_296-4


Augmented Reality Museum Visitor Embed Assessment Fantasy Play Design Tension 
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Definition and Background

There is general agreement among museum professionals and scholars that the key feature of an interactive exhibit (or “interactive” for short) is reciprocity: as a visitor uses the exhibit, it responds in some way. This distinguishes it from more traditional exhibits that may be read or observed but do not change physically in response to visitors’ actions. The simplest interactives respond in only very limited ways, such as revealing more information to visitors when a flap is lifted or initiating a mechanical process when a button is pushed. More typically, however, interactive exhibits include mechanical, optical, magnetic, or electrical components that can be moved, connected, and adjusted in a broad variety of ways. Interactives often include some kind of interpretive labels that guide visitors and orient them to the goals of the exhibit; these typically include instructions or challenges, questions or hints, explanations, and a connection to daily life. While interactives are often referred to as “hands-on” exhibits by the public, that phrase is something of a misnomer, since even a static exhibit may be available for touching, while an interactive exhibit is truly responsive to visitors’ actions.

Interactive exhibits are not new – visitor-activated models date back at least to 1889 in Germany – but they became widespread in the 1970s and 1980s with the growth of children’s museums and science centers in countries such as Canada and the USA. Since then, they have become common in all kinds of museums and both indoor and outdoor public spaces around the world. With the advent of computer technologies, interactive exhibits have become even more open-ended and adaptable.

Contributions to Science Learning

Various theoretical frameworks have been used to classify and assess the kinds of learning that interactive exhibits seem to support. Among the more common are constructivist theories that characterize cognitive learning, sociocultural theories that emphasize visitors’ participation with others using language and tools, and various psychological theories that focus on affective and motivational dimensions of learning.

In terms of cognition, interactives have shown evidence of contributing to visitors’ understanding of scientific content: particular scientific concepts (such as gravitational force), principles (such as conservation of angular momentum when a spinning person changes her rotational inertia by pulling her arms closer to her body), observable features (such as the structures of genetically modified worms), or the behavior of a system of components (such as the way artificial muscles move the legs of a robot). The way a visitor uses the exhibit can also make a difference: for example, there is evidence that children who play with an interactive exhibit in an investigatory way show greater learning of scientific content goals than those who engage in fantasy play at the exhibit.

Interactives have been shown to elicit a range of scientific and engineering practices, as visitors spontaneously engage in exploring, questioning, investigating, designing, and building. However, such practices are not equally supported: the most frequently observed learning behaviors by visitors are usually action-oriented (such as manipulating the exhibit and seeing what happens), while more reflective behaviors such as generalization, argumentation, and conclusion are considerably rarer.

Research has also shown the importance of human facilitation in aiding learning at interactives. Typically parents will support children, focusing their attention, explaining how the exhibits work (especially often to boy children), and drawing connections to similar real-world experiences as well as formal science ideas. Parents of young children tend to either sit back or take over, so exhibit labels can help by suggesting ways they can contribute and support their children.

Finally, it is well established that interactive exhibits are extremely attractive to museum visitors and tend to sustain their engagement for a longer time than non-interactives. Even in institutions with live animals, visitors often seek and talk about their interactions with the animals; this is a likely contributor to the popularity of touch tanks in aquariums.

Design Challenges

Apart from considerations of greater cost, ongoing maintenance, and safety concerns, interactives are among the most challenging learning materials to design successfully, because they need to work without the presence of a “teacher” who can guide activity and circumvent problems if visitors become lost, confused, or stuck. Typical design tensions include:
  • Degree of complexity: Interactives that support deep and extended exploration are often complex or have multiple components, but such complexity may easily confuse visitors when they first use the exhibit.

  • Source of authority: The more open-ended an interactive exhibit, the more authority visitors have in creating and interpreting their own experiences. On the other hand, a more limited set of configurations allows the museum to anticipate visitors’ actions and create a label that includes canonical science content voiced with institutional authority.

  • Target audience: While exhibit designers may have a particular audience in mind, interactives are likely to be used by museum visitors of literally all ages, abilities, and backgrounds. Designing for a particular age or ability level may easily create unintentional barriers to other types of visitors.

Sometimes these challenges have been resolved by creating a hierarchy of salience so that simple actions are obvious at first and others discovered later. Another successful approach has been to segment the functionality of the exhibit into similar stations so that a social group of visitors can each do personal investigations but still be watching and learning from each other (Fig. 1).
Fig. 1

Multiple stations allow visitors to easily make drawings in the sand on individual spinning disks while also supporting and learning from each other (Photo courtesy of the Exploratorium)

What Makes Effective Interactive Exhibits?

Various researchers have created lists of features that support learning at exhibits more generally. For interactives more specifically, some of the key design recommendations (summarized by Gammon, below) include: clear feedback from the exhibit in response to visitors’ actions, few control mechanisms and no requirement of a particular sequence for these, control mechanisms that match visitors’ expectations (e.g., dials should work either clockwise or anticlockwise), and use of clear and concise labels near visitors’ point of attention as they use the exhibit. For interactives to deeply engage visitors in lengthy and self-directed inquiry, such as that aligned with Dewey’s vision of education in schools, the most successful designs seem to be quite open-ended, with some combination of compelling phenomena, intriguing challenges, and aesthetically beautiful changes or small components that support combination and construction.

Social engagement has been extensively studied as a pivotal means to science learning and an end in itself. With interactive exhibits, just talking with other visitors increases the amount of exploratory behavior and hence greater understanding of the exhibit. When available, skilled facilitation by a docent or other staff member can further extend and deepen learning. For example, with a little coaching in how to generate productive questions and verbalize interpretations of the results, a staff member can coach both family and field trip groups to engage in longer, more collaborative, and more coherent investigations. Staff can also use their conversations with visitors to change the quality of the talk, such as increasing the amount of ecological discussion within a group exploring at a touch tank.

Despite general guidelines such as these, interactives are so diverse in their goals, designs, audiences, and configurations that it is critically important for designers to pilot test them with users during development.

Current Trends

Interactive exhibits are still at the frontier of changing exhibit designs. Among the trends over the last decade are the following:
  • greater support for simultaneous use by social groups of visitors (such as large exhibits with several sides and components) rather than a solo individual;

  • increasing use in supporting visitors to share their views on an issue (such as projection tables that present an issue and invite visitors to vote);

  • more supports for reflection (such as an embedded video camera that asks visitors to create an illustrated story of their experience using the exhibit);

  • blurring of boundaries with other types of experiences and media. Examples include including large-scale immersives with embedded interactive components (such as a climbable structure made of movable geometric pieces), interactives created in virtual reality (such as a musical staircase made entirely in Second Life), dioramas with interactive components (such as an animal diorama incorporating touchable fur or the noise-making structure of a rattlesnake), aquariums with touch tanks (supporting handling of live animals in carefully structured ways), or augmented reality focused on social interaction (such as a floor projection of an animated ecosystem that changes in response to visitors’ movements) (Figs. 2 and 3).

Fig. 2

Visitors create an immersive geometrical structure (Photo courtesy of the Exploratorium)

Fig. 3

“Bug Rug” at California Academy of Sciences, where visitors interact with a simulated jungle floor (Photo courtesy of Snibbe Interactive)

Interactives are rich drivers of creative learning assessment methods as well, supporting rich data streams of video and audio recordings, interviews, and observations at many scales of space and time. This is probably because their open-endedness and support for group learning mimic the complexity of real-life settings, their use by diverse publics demands excellent interface design, and their hybridization with other forms of multimedia requires the development of multimedia embedded assessment tools.



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  4. Humphrey T, Gutwill J (2005) Fostering active prolonged engagement. The Exploratorium, San FranciscoGoogle Scholar
  5. Scott C (ed) (2004) Special issue on interactives in museums. Curator Mus J 47(2):127–228Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Allen and AssociatesNewcastleUSA