Object-Based Exhibits

January 1st, 2016

This Knowledge Base article was written collaboratively with contributions from Kevin Crowley and Donna DiBartolomeo. This article was migrated from a previous version of the Knowledge Base. The date stamp does not reflect the original publication date.


Museums create exhibits to display objects from their collections. Object-based exhibits are common in natural history, art, and history museums in particular, but many other informal learning institutions (e.g., children’s museums, science centers, nature centers, etc.) may also display collections or integrate authentic objects in exhibits. Objects can be a compelling basis for a STEM exhibit, as they are often quite rare, valuable, and important—seeing the dinosaur fossils, the north American mammal dioramas, some moon rocks, a space shuttle, or cross section of the main cable suspending the golden gate bridge may be the primary motivation for visiting a particular museum.

However, object-based exhibits also bring challenges. Objects are often valuable and cannot be handled by visitors, so they have traditionally been displayed as static exhibits, secured behind glass and ropes with perhaps only signage or a docent tour to help scaffold visitor learning. Some objects of great scientific importance and educational value can seem mundane to the average visitor – bits of fossil, rock, or invertebrate collections. Object-based exhibits sometimes use models, simulations, dioramas, video clips, and hand-held technology to help add context and support visiting learning. Finally, many collections-based institutions display only a fraction of the full collection, creating the need for ways to expose more of the collection to visitors, with rotating exhibits, visual storage, and online access to virtual collections being some common strategies.

Institutions with living collections (zoos, aquaria, botanical gardens, etc.) include a distinct a category of object-based exhibits with unique opportunities and challenges. Living collections can be more dynamic than other object-based exhibits— for example animals may move around in their enclosures or plants may change through their growing seasons. But that also makes them less predictable and creates conditions where different visitors will have different experiences, which can challenge more static forms of signage or other forms of mediation.

Findings from Research and Evaluation 


What is the role of authenticity in how visitors learn from object-based exhibits? Many museums contain historic reproductions, such as plaster casts from 1800s. At what point are they authentic? What is the value of handling a reproduction and only seeing the “real”?


Dioramas have been displayed as common exhibits in natural history museums as far back as the 19th century, when taxidermy and associated objects were often arranged in story-like associations meant to provide a narrative scene for the visitor (Marandino & Oliveira, 2009; Morris, 2009).  When encountering dioramas, visitors use prior knowledge to label objects, identify features, relate objects to one another, and provide narratives (Tunnicliffe & Sheersoi, 2009).  But visitors, especially children, can have a hard time learning from dioramas, although under supportive conditions they can be successful (Tomkins & Tunnicliffe, 2001; Melber, 2007; Tunnicliffe & Reiss, 2000). For example, using technology that coordinates parent-child attention to features in a diorama can support more joint-attention and learning conversation (Povis & Crowley, in press). [Please add your work on dioramas to this section.]

Learning to Observe

Skilled or scientific observation is one of the key scientific sense-making processes supported by object-based exhibits. Carefully examining an object, and describing its attributes in detail, can help museum visitors observe the artifact and may aid in their understanding and appreciation for the work. After making careful observations, visitors may be promoted to discuss the possible use and origin of the object, and hypothesize what they believe might have been the purpose and function of the piece. Noting specific visual details, developing generative questions about the use or reason for the artifact, and contextualizing the object in time, culture, or application, can help bring the objects into an active part of the museum experience. (Tishman, 2008).

Using Technology to Explore Objects and Collections

Advances in technology have enabled new ways of observing, sharing, and learning from objects and collection. For example, using gigapixel viewing technology to allow visitors to zoom in close to observe details of objects that cannot be directly observed, either because they are too small, not on display, or because they are not in the museum collection at all (Louw & Crowley, 2014).  [Needs to be fleshed out.]


Ash, D. (2004). How families use questions at dioramas: Ideas for exhibit design. Curator, 47(1), 84-99.

Louw, M. & Crowley, K. (2013). New ways of looking and learning in natural history museums: The use of gigapixel imaging to bring science and publics together. Curator: The Museum Journal 52(1): 87-104.

Melber, L. M. (2007). Maternal scaffolding in two museum exhibition halls. Curator, 50(3), 341-354.

Povis, K. & Crowley, K. (in press). Family learning in object-based museums: The role of joint attention. Visitor Studies.

Tishman, S. (2008) The object of their attention. Educational Leadership. 65(5), 44-46.

Tomkins, S.P., & Tunnicliffe, S.D. (2001). Looking for Ideas: Observation, Interpretation and Hypothesis-Making by 12-Year-Old Pupils Undertaking Science Investigations International. Journal of Science Education, 23(8), 791-813.

Tunnicliffe, SD & Scheersoi, A. (2015) Natural History Dioramas. Springer.

Tunnicliffe, S.D., & Reiss, M.J. (2000). What Sense Do Children Make of Three Dimensional Life-Sized “Representations” of Animals? School Science and Mathematics, 100(3), 128-138.