Participatory exhibit design for ISE environments

January 1st, 2016

This article was migrated from a previous version of the Knowledge Base. The date stamp does not reflect the original publication date.


The two most common approaches to integrating visitor voices into museum exhibits is either evaluation based or design based, with the exhibit as a recipient/ framework for visitor voices.  Oftentimes both evaluation and design-based approaches for exhibits are used together, particularly in the development of an interactive exhibit.

Findings from Research and Evaluation 

Visitor Voices through Evaluation

Evaluation of visitor reaction, use, and opinion of an exhibit can happen at any stage of an exhibit‚Äôs lifetime, but highly influential in the outcome of an exhibit would be the formative evaluation and prototyping of a developing exhibit. Multiple iterations of formative evaluation are used in the development of STEM exhibits (eg. Exploratorium‚Äôs A.P.E. project) and in generating exhibit research and guidelines (eg. the seven characteristics from Family Learning Project). Visitor feedback serves to guide the creation of engaging STEM exhibits.

Designs for Visitor Voices

Exhibit designs for receiving and framing visitor voices can come in the form of inquiry-based exhibits (role play of visitor as scientist) and in participatory exhibits (dealing with social involvement and visitor opinion on issues of science).

Inquiry-based exhibits have been popular in major science museums since the early 1990‚Äôs with landmark exhibits from the Science Museum of Minnesota‚Äôs Experiment Bench and the Museum of Science‚Äôs Investigate!, to the Exploratorium‚Äôs investigations into the A.P.E. project, G.I.V.E. project, and geometry playground. These exhibits work to have the visitor ‚Äúbe the scientist‚ÄĚ, to conduct their own experiments and explorations, and develop their own conclusions. The Science Museum of Minnesota even worked with the National Museum of American History to develop an exhibit on inventions, connecting role-play as inventor within the context of historic inventors.

Though not as frequent in STEM museums, participatory style exhibits also have established approaches for visitor opinion, and author Nina Simon (in the spring 2010 issue of Exhibitionist) feels there is potential for a participatory approach in STEM exhibits via established interactivity found in science museums. In some respects the Exploratorium‚Äôs G.I.V.E. project is synthesizing some of these approaches, as it encourages social participation, questioning, and discussion within the context of enhancing inquiry based exhibits. It moves away from ‚Äúindividual as scientist‚ÄĚ to ‚Äúgroup as scientists‚ÄĚ in which scientific thought and concept are welcome as engaging conversation.

The term ‚Äėexhibit‚Äô can be problematic when addressing learning through inquiry activities. Is an activity that can be used in both formal and informal science learning settings an exhibit? When does a ‚Äėhands on activity‚Äô become and inquiry based ‚Äėexhibit‚Äô? Such questions are relevant when reviewing the resources available at The list of inquiry based learning activities about climate change can be used in both formal and informal settings to affect individual learning.


Borun, M., Horowitz, J., McGonigle, J., & Wagner, G. (1994-1998).  Philadelphia Informal Science Education Collaborative (PISEC): Family Science Learning Project.  Retrieved from

Climate Change Education .Org (2012). Hands-on science programs and resources around the world. Accessed March 4, 2012 from