The immersive exhibition is a specialized exhibition genre in museums, which creates the illusion of time and place by representing key characteristics of a reference world and by integrating the visitor in this three-dimensionally reconstructed world (Mortensen 2010). A successful representation of the reference world depends on three criteria: whether the exhibition is staged as a coherent whole with all the displayed objects supporting the representation, whether the visitor is integrated as a component of the exhibition, and whether the content and message of the exhibition become dramatized as a result of the visitor’s interaction with the exhibit.
Immersive Exhibition Types
Immersive exhibitions may be classified by how they represent their reference world. An immersive exhibition that is based on an exogenous logic reconstitutes a reference world that is real or fictional and reconstitutes this reference world as authentically as possible. This type of immersive exhibition is therefore based on a model of reconstitution. Examples are life-sized environments such as a forest clearing or Sherlock Holmes’ study, which incorporate authentic objects such as taxidermied animals or real furniture. The layout of such exhibitions is thus governed by a logic that exists outside of (exogenously to) the exhibit, namely, the logic which characterizes the reference world (Montpetit 1996).
An immersive exhibition that is based on an endogenous logic is an exhibition that refers to a world that neither exists nor has existed. The world represented in the exhibition is created ad hoc to serve the needs of the exhibition objectives and follows only the rules and logic which it itself generates (which are endogenous to it). This type of immersive exhibition is therefore based on a model of creation (Montpetit 1996). An example could be a “sensory tunnel” in which the intent is to let the visitor explore their five senses one by one as they proceed through a tunnel. The layout of such an exhibition is governed by the objective of providing visitors with an experience of their five senses and does not correspond to any existing reference world.
Finally, an immersive exhibition that employs a combination of exogenous and endogenous logics is an exhibition that utilizes interpretation. This is often the case when the knowledge to be exhibited is not associated with a representable human-scale realm, or the significant experiences of the reference world are abstract. Interpretative immersion exhibitions thus combine the exogenous logic of an existing reference world with the endogenous logic generated by their own setting-in-scene. This type of immersive exhibition is therefore based on a model of interpretation (Montpetit 1996). An example could be a walk-through scale model of the human digestive tract. The morphology of such an exhibition would be based on the exogenous logic of an existing reference world (the human digestive tract) interpreted by exhibition engineers to create an analogical representation according to an endogenous logic.
Immersive exhibitions that are based on an endogenous logic diverge from the basic analogy of resemblance that characterizes reconstitution immersive exhibitions. Instead of physically resembling their reference worlds, creation or interpretation exhibitions must rely on an indicative or symbolic relationship with their reference worlds. Common to all types of immersion exhibitions, however, is the fact that they consist of self-contained systems of meaning and symbols designed by the exhibition engineers for the purpose of creating a microculture for the museum visitor to enter into (Mortensen 2010).
The Role of the Visitor
Immersive exhibitions usually specify a role for the visitor. Depending on the model of representation and the exhibit’s subject matter, the intended role of the visitor may be more or less integrated in the exhibit. For example, an immersion exhibition reconstituting an African rain forest with a pathway may provide a setting and ambience in which visitors can immerse themselves, playing the role of themselves, i.e., that of a person walking along a rain forest path. A stronger degree of immersion may be observed in exhibitions which assign the visitor a specific character to play, for instance, that of an animal in its habitat. Finally, exhibitions that utilize virtual reality can allow visitors to act on the represented world, modifying it in real time. In sum, the degree of visitor integration in an immersion exhibition falls within the range from setting and ambience to role play and finally to real-time modification of environment (Belaën 2003; Mortensen 2010).
Visitor Reactions to Immersive Exhibitions
How well an immersive exhibition disseminates its meaning and message depends on how well the visitor recognizes and accepts the represented world and the role assigned to them. This is an undertaking which requires a certain suspension of reality, and not all museum visitors are willing and/or able to do this. Common visitor reactions to immersion exhibitions range from resonance, where visitors willingly surrender themselves to the immersion premise, to distance, where the visitor considers the staging of the content to be disproportionate to the content itself, and finally to rejection, where the visitor figuratively and sometimes literally fails to enter the immersive environment (Belaën 2003; Mortensen 2010).
- Belaën, F. (2003, September). L’analyse de l’apparition d’un nouveau genre culturel dans les musées des sciences: les expositions d'immersion [Analysis of the appearance of a new cultural genre in science museums: immersion exhibitions]. Paper presented at the The International Cultural Heritage Informatics Meeting, Paris, France.Google Scholar