Designing Exhibits to Facilitate Social Interactions

January 1st, 2016

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Researchers and evaluators have studied how social interactions around exhibits influence learning, and exhibit developers have experimented with design strategies to facilitate conversations and social interactions at exhibits.

Findings from Research and Evaluation 

Key research and development work in this area has included the following:

The PISEC Family Learning Project study led by Minda Borun in the mid 1990’s examined design elements that were likely to encourage learning in families such as asking questions, answering questions, reading aloud, etc.  From their research, they developed seven characteristics of successful family exhibits: multi-sided, multi-user, accessible, multi-outcome, multi-modal, readable, and relevant.

Josh Gutwill, at The Exploratorium’s Active Prolonged Engagement (A.P.E.) project went on to explore further means to develop open-ended exhibits, yielding even more dialogue between parents and children at exhibits.

In 2010 the Exploratorium published the Facilitating Family Group Inquiry at Science Museum Exhibits study which examined ways to more effectively support inquiry activities at exhibits. Gutwill and Allen looked specifically at two behaviors: 1) proposing actions (suggesting  an exhibit interaction or manipulation) and 2) interpreting results (interpretations or explanations for what happened). For this study visitors are taught the “Juicy Questions” game as a means of developing these inquiry skills, with the goal of carrying the game (and skills) onto further exhibits and informal science experiences.  They found that using this simple game with family groups prompted an increase in the frequency of inquiry behaviors, in comparison to families who did not play Juicy Questions.

Vom Lehn, Heath & Hindmarsh (2001) studied how adult companions both share and discourage the use of exhibits.  A study of parent-child dyads (Melber 2007) demonstrated that mothers consciously changed their scaffolding techniques in response to the physical context of the learning environment. Less child-directed activity was observed with more traditionally structured exhibits.

Directions for Future Research 

As Virtual Reality comes to the forefront as an engagement tool, it is imperative to discover how to create collaborative social experiences for them. Likewise, the combination of mobile device use and social engagement around learning experiences is still in its infancy as far as designing rich, explorative journeys, as opposed to voting-type functions. The idea of co-authorship, a basic tenet of interactive game media, is a rich one for exploration by free-choice learning professionals.


Allen, S. and Gutwill, J.  Facilitating Family Group Inquiry at Science Museum Exhibits. Science Education, 94(4), 710-742. 

Borun, M. et al. Family Learning in Museums: the PISEC Perspective, The Franklin Institute, Philadelphia, 1998.

Gutwill, J. and Humphrey, T. Fostering Active Prolonged Engagement: The Art of Creating APE Exhibits. Exploratorium, 2005.

Melber, L. M. (2007). Maternal Scaffolding in Two Museum Exhibition Halls. Curator, 50, 341-354.

Vom Lehn, D., Heath, C., & Hindmarsh, J. (2001). Exhibiting Interaction: Conduct and Collaboration in Museums and Galleries. Symbolic Interaction, 24(2), 189-216. doi:10.1525/si.2001.24.2.189

Related Articles 

Role of Parents and Caregivers in Supporting Science Learning for Young Children

Family Learning in Museums