Participatory Exhibit Design

This little essay was written in the planning stages of Galileo’s World (last modified on Jan 29, 2015).  While for lack of time our actual implementation of Galileo’s World fell short of the participatory ideals sketched below, this theory of exhibit design shows how our thinking was indebted to Nina Simon, in that we define “participatory” as when students and visitors become “co-creators of meaning.” This essay also demonstrates that from the very beginning, we were planning the Galileo’s World exhibit in light of exhibit-based educational outreach.  

Participatory mission

Modern museum design is social, participatory, and visitor-contingent.  Participatory means the exhibit experience is interactive and hands-on, but even more profoundly, an exhibit is participatory when it enables and prompts visitors or students to become co-creators of knowledge and meaning.  By this definition, a participatory exhibit will by nature be both social and visitor-determined.  Social means that it connects people by prompting dynamic conversation and promoting human interaction.  Visitor-contingent means that, rather than imposing a single pre-determined path or prescribing a uniform experience, the exhibit by design encourages visitors to experience it in multiple ways.  Participatory exhibit design reflects the engagement mission of the university, of the research library, and of special collections.

With a participatory exhibit design, the mission of library and special collections exhibits is to promote undergraduate and public engagement through meaningful exploration and discovery.

Traditional museum Participatory museum Nina Simon, The Participatory Museum

The participatory character of exhibits is articulated by Nina Simon, The Participatory Museum (2010);

Exhibition without Walls

An “Exhibition without walls’ is a participatory exhibit design, where virtual and physical experiences are seamlessly melded together.  The melding of virtual and physical experiences together into a participatory exhibit is even more crucial to visitor experience for a distributed exhibition – whether distributed physically across different locations or temporally by rotating in and out at different times.  Because the physical and virtual are melded into a seamless experience, every gallery will be continually enhanced throughout the year as the website grows, as student projects are added, as special events are held, as other galleries open or change elsewhere.

The warp and weft of an exhibit

Rather than placing the visitor in a labyrinth with one prescribed path, a participatory exhibit will promote multiple pathways and exhibit experiences.  A simple participatory exhibit design is a multi-colored plaid, whose cross-cutting warp and weft provides visitors with undetermined possibilities for exploring the exhibit.

Tartans Warp and weft

Galleries:  Each gallery tells a story with one major theme.  To promote exploration and discovery, each theme is posed as an open-ended question.  These themes are comprehensive as a whole, selected to engage the entire campus, without losing focus.  So they each provide a scaffolding upon which the university can build.  Each gallery will be introduced in a brief, 1-2 minute video featuring Galileo’s daughter, Sister Maria Celeste.  She will host each gallery, in full costume, and offer a dramatic prompt to engage, arouse interest, and orient a visitor to the story of the gallery. A gallery is the warp of the exhibition plaid.

Storylines:  Astronomy students and musicians and middle-school classes will not need to see and do the same things. We hope that visitors will return to the exhibit repeatedly to experience it via multiple storylines.   A cross-cutting storyline is the weft of the exhibit plaid.

Visitors may explore galleries and storylines in combinations that are meaningful to them.

Intersecting nodes, or Waystations

A “Waystation” is an intersection between a gallery and a storyline.  Conceptually, it refers to an occasion for any kind of learning activity, often cast into the context of a narrative story or journey.  Think of it as a mile marker on a trail, where different trails meet, and where a cache is hidden containing many desirable items.  Exhibit-based learning is object-oriented; the object (physical or virtual) is the waystation, the point in the trail where one pauses.  This is a place for any visitor to pause and consider whether any of the collected learning activities cached there might be appropriate or engaging for his or her own journey.  A waystation may collect any of the following types of activities:

  • Something to read, watch or listen to
    • Excerpts of Galileo’s and other displayed works in translation, or in audio clips
    • Brief explanatory videos (e.g. book notes, Museo Galileo, etc.)
    • Augmented reality, 3-D objects, Oculus Rift, etc. (make books come alive); cf. High-impact AR objects
  • A puzzle to solve or think about
    • By inspection or comparison of images
  • An instrument to use
    • Instrument video tutorial
    • Instrument exercises
  • Learning activities, lesson plans, Open Educational Resources for varying subject areas and grade levels, keyed to K12 curriculum objectives and to university classes in various subject areas
  • Something to write or make
    • Comments on a whiteboard or visitor register
    • Take a photo/selfie of oneself against backgrounds customized for the exhibit, such as with Galileo, at Galileo’s home, the Florence skyline, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, etc. and send to Twitter, Facebook or Flickr with appropriate hashtag. 
  • A path to explore, dive deeper
    • Print and digital sources of next resort (located in Exploration Room)
    • Reading Group recommendations
    • Links to catalog, repository, digital projects, Wikipedia, virtual website, external resources, etc.
    • Interpretations to respond to by leaving comments or posts with appropriate hashtag.  
    • Videos on the website of exhibit-related events, growing throughout the year


  • Telescope gallery:  draw the mountains on the Moon as they appear through Galileo’s replica telescope; then compare them with Galileo’s own depictions in the Sidereus nuncius.  This activity might be of interest to many storylines, including astronomy, painting and the visual arts, and secondary science education.
  • Sky at Night gallery:  
    • Compare the night sky around Orion as seen with the unaided eye, with the additional stars Galileo saw using his telescope (and later celestial atlases as well).  Perhaps an animation.
    • Given a modern Moon map of equivalent scale, can you locate Apollo landing areas on Hevelius’ or Riccioli’s lunar map?
  • Music of the Spheres, Controversy on the Comets, Galileo Affair, etc.:  crowd-source transcription of manuscripts on display (Baldi, Grassi, Servetus, etc.).
  • Music of the Spheres:  duochords; Identify and naming the constellations; Euclid origami; astrolabe, sundial, orreries.
  • Galileo Engineer:  abacus, slide rule, compass; which fort is more secure? / how to aim a cannon
  • Renaissance art:  How Galileo measured the height of mountains on the Moon
  • Galileo, Natural history and Americas:  Which of these was once alive?  (dendrites, petrified wood, glossopetrae); decipher Aztec names.
  • New Physics:  
    • On a Venetian ship, how far can one increase the length of oars to outrun Turkish and English ships at sea, before the oars become too thick to be useful?
    • Inclined plane simulation; compare your results with Galileo’s law
    • Projectile motion, archery
    • Impetus thought experiment cartoon
  • Microscopy:  Compare microscope views with drawings from books – Apiarium, Leeuwenhoek, Hooke.
  • Controversy over the comets:  sextant, quadrant; parallax observation on far wall.
  • Galileo affair:  try your hand at copying Galileo’s signature, then press a button to view his actual signature overlaid upon your own

Planning a visit:  which exhibit objects, which activities at which waystations (create your own storyline, or select a pre-defined template)

After identifying waystations, then, for each gallery and for some of the working groups, we will combine select waystations into storylines. 

Waystations provide us with a conceptual way to consolidate a group of lesson activities and resources into a single node, where instructors can choose the activities most appropriate to their group.

A guide embodies a storyline customized for a particular interest or age-group.  A guide escorts each target audience through the exhibition, from gallery to gallery.  A guide will be a fictional characters, but historically representative of a particular place and time.  For example, the guide for an astronomy storyline might be a fictional friend of Galileo’s named Sagredo, who assisted him with his telescopic discoveries, and has “inside” information he heard from Galileo himself about various other figures and episodes he may comment on. Guides for different storylines will stop at different waystations, even in the same galleries, leading visitors to engage the story of the exhibition using different combinations of learning activities.

Some of the storylines worth creating may be:

  • Elementary science education
  • Middle school science education
  • Secondary science education
  • Astronomy
  • Music
  • Mathematics
  • Engineering
  • Painting and visual arts
  • Travel
  • Physics
  • Natural History
  • Science and religion
  • Overview (The Galileo Code)

We will have to choose carefully which 3 or 4 or so storylines to create first, depending on our volunteer developers’ interests.  

Engagement:  How do storylines enhance the experience of visitors?

In the Galileo’s World exhibition, we intend to engage visitors with meaningful and memorable experiences.  The storylines are our prime means of achieving these dimensions of visitor engagement.  In the context of storylines, visitors will stop at various waystations.  The result will be a visitor experience characterized by the following:

  1. Stories:  Science is a story.  We want to reiterate this in creative ways. Similarly, stories convey meaning more memorably than didactic instruction.  Storylines therefore play a central role in casting a visitor’s experience of the exhibition in the context of a narrative story.
  2. Participation:  By participation, we mean that the exhibition will engage visitors to construct meaningful experiences for themselves.  By touring the exhibition with a select guide, visitors will feel like they are participating in Galileo’s World in a more dramatic and meaningful way.  Participation is very similar to the aspect of co-creation (next).
  3. Co-creation:  Visitors learn by creating knowledge and meaning, drawing connections for themselves, constructing meaning in their own frames of reference.  Our approach to this exhibit will encourage visitors to translate Galileo’s World into their own world.  We will seek to make our visitors co-creators of knowledge, rather than seeking only to impart authorized information to them according to our own frames of reference.  We want to emphasize what visitors can do with the knowledge they gain in a participatory way, so that it will be memorable and meaningful to them. Our chief way of promoting co-creation of meaning is to juxtapose Galileo’s world with the world of OU today.  Our chief way of promoting co-creation of knowledge is to promote exploration and discovery via the digital resources provided at the waystations.
  4. Challenge:  Hard-won experiences are remembered best.  We want to find a way to challenge every visitor of the exhibition.  Many will find a piece of missing context that makes intelligible some otherwise confusing excerpt from a primary source.  For some, the nature of the challenge may involve the intellectual work of identifying and casting away some uncritical preconception.  For others, it may involve constructing an unexpected connection never recognized before between two areas of personal interest.  In practice, a challenge may be as simple as solving a puzzle at a particular waystation, or finding clues in one gallery, or distributed among several waystations, to complete a game level on an iPad before moving on to the next.  For everyone, we hope to engage their creativity and resourcefulness to solve a problem that makes the exhibit more meaningful to them.  We hope no one will leave the exhibit without having met and conquered a challenge of some sort.
  5. Interaction:  Interactivity means more to us than having touch screen electronic devices or watching animated page curls.  Hands-on activities are very helpful, but they will count as interactive only when they are active and not merely passive activities.  For example, instruments provide one form of interactivity when they are actually used by visitors, hands-on, with the opportunity to record their results and compare them with the historical record (as in drawing the Moon as seen through Galileo’s replica telescope, then comparing it with Galileo’s depiction, and the depictions of other visitors; or similarly with observations made through a microscope).  But interactivity can also mean any kind of active rather than passive engagement, as in the challenge of solving a multi-step puzzle while working through a gallery, before moving on to the next gallery, as if one were moving to the next level of a video game.  
  6. Persons:  Interactivity also refers to interaction with other persons at various waystations, either virtually (as in competing for highest scores) or tangibly (viewing products created by other visitors, or making decisions with companions, classmates, or others just happening to move through at the same time). How can people share their stories of what made their journey through the exhibit meaningful to them? We want the experience of the exhibit to be personal, and this is also what interactivity means for us.
  7. Rewards:  What can visitors take away from the exhibit?  Let’s give them something specific and satisfying, whether tangible or virtual.  We can be creative with this, but let’s give some thought to the possible kinds of rewards we might offer.  Visitors who engage in our storylines should earn rewards of some sort for their efforts in knowledge creation, overcoming challenges, puzzle solving, etc.  Tangible rewards might range from displaying the product of their work at a particular waystation, to receiving patches, artistic prints or postcards, to earning the opportunity to print a 3-D object (e.g., a replica telescope).  Virtual rewards might consist of signing their name in the electronic guest-book, which randomly broadcasts previously entered names on a bulletin board, or seeing their name displayed after winning a high score in a competitive game. A typical reward might be the opportunity to get their photo taken with the guide using a special background in Photo Booth, or a Souvenir Penny.

Academy of the Lynx website

Each of the above hosts and guides, along with their storylines, can be made more “real” by the use of social media, coordinated from the Academy of the Lynx website for educators.  That is, we will ordinarily expect that each guide character will communicate with followers (and each other) through twitter, Facebook, flickr and pinterest, and will maintain a blog.  

Check out the blog of Dr. Watson in support of the BBC TV series Sherlock for an example of this kind of use of social media to make the exhibition world more real and engaging.  

We are recruiting educators to write posts on each dramatic character’s blog, twitter and Facebook, and to respond to student and public comments made on the blog.  The storyline blogs will be aggregated and made accessible via the Academy of the Lynx companion website, where comments by students and others will be responded to by educator docents, as often as possible using the distinctive voices of the guides.


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