Visitor memories

June 26th, 2008 by Wendy Pollock

What happens when you invite visitors to tell their own stories?

In his recent case study of the Liberty Science Center’s Skyscrapers exhibition, Wayne LaBar described a place among the towering exhibits where visitors can make themselves heard. As Wayne describes it, “Our visitors also have a voice in the story when they write their own memories about tall buildings, when they draw and submit a skyscraper design to be exhibited in the gallery, or when they assemble their own internet-based project, blogging about skyscrapers built in their neighborhood.” Wayne later sent along this postcard, left by one visitor:
Visitor response to the Liberty Science Center's Skyscraper exhibition
Wayne was among the authors who contributed to the recently published book Visitor Voices in Museum Exhibitions (which Kathy McLean and I co-edited), which explores the museum world’s counterpart of citizen journalism: visitors actively commenting on, contributing to, and even creating exhibitions.

A few other ExhibitFiles case studies and reviews mention this kind of “visitor voice” exhibit (like the Cafeteria area in the Science Museum of Minnesota’s Race exhibition), but we know there are more. We hope others will share their experiences, experiments, and reflections here – and tell us how museums are responding to visitors’ contributions.

11 Responses to “Visitor memories”

  1. Marjorie Schwarzer Says:

    Hi Wayne and Kathy,

    I recently had an interesting experience with a low-cost exhibit that I helped to curate for the Oakland Museum’s cafeteria. It opened in Nov. 2007 and the designers, Kaoru Kitagawa and Carole Jeoung, did a wonderful job of making a potentally dry topic visually appealing. The result is a colorful photographic timeline of the institution’s almost 100 year history: some great old photos + text to set them in a coherent storyline.

    SO, what’s the visitor voice angle on such a traditional-style non-interactive exhibit? First off, I learned that people *do* read “old fashioned” timelines, especially when they are attractive and in conspicuous places (like the museum cafeteria). Old photos can be intrinsically interesting.

    Second, not that this is news, but visitors love seeing photos of themselves or people they know on display.

    But most interesting is the reaction of older volunteers and docents. Three strangers have taken the time to PHONE ME to share opinions and stories (I work for another institution about 8 miles away and am not easy to track down, so this took effort on their part). They want to tell me what I left out, what I got wrong, a detail I missed, and mostly they just want someone to listen to *their* memories of the museum and its history. I find this quite lovely, since all of the calls I’ve gotten are from elderly people. They simply want someone to listen to *their* story. I’ve also gotten emails, again from people who care about the museum and figured out how to track me down.

    The lesson: go beyond “visitor voices,” to incorporate “family voices,” that is docents and long-time volunteers who are often the institution’s glue. Elderly docents with a longtime relationship to the museum — as opposed to museum professionals who hop from place to place — may be the best storytellers of all.

    Marjorie Schwarzer, JFKU Museum Studies

  2. Mariana Salgado Says:

    Mapping Visitors’ Voices

    In a recent exhibition in the Design Museum in Helsinki we asked visitors to leave their comments on design pieces. Our small exhibition was: The Secret Life of Objects, an Interactive Map of Finnish Design. It was a collaboration between Media Lab UIAH and the Design Museum. We put up a blog about the project:

    Visitors’ voices were gathered through a map (image that compile pictures of the design objects) and later on displayed beside the objects, on the walls and displays. Visitors’ comments looked like the comments in the digital version, they had a frame and background and were well integrated into the exhibition. These comments gave a fresh, fun and alive character to the exhibition. We collected comments that were poetic, creative and personal. We gathered lot of memories about the use of these objects since most of them were/are part of Finnish everyday life.

    The lessons learned:
    a) Pre-arranged material coming from the workshops was a source of inspiration and influence positively the visitors’ participation. We had previously collected in the map poems, music, drawing and videos.
    b) Visitors while seeing others’ previous visitors comments displayed “respectfully” made an effort to leave something “meaningful”. Also previous visitors’ comments validate their own thoughts. The multiplicity of voices displayed made them grasp that there are different ways to comment and engage with the exhibition.
    c) We could displayed more text than in other exhibitions because the informal language used made it easy to read. Visitors spend time and read the comments of others’ visitors actively.
    d) The fresh and fun tone of the comments and the vocabulary of the visitors made the exhibition more accessible and easier to engage to others visitors.

    It raise questions in the museum about how to conserve and relate to this material.

    In my opinion visitors’ are not use to the practice of commenting and leaving their trace in the museum, but through encouraging this practice we are offering new learning opportunities. The strategies used to engage visitors influence the participation and with it the whole exhibition.

    Mariana Salgado-
    Media Lab- University of Art and Design Helsinki

  3. Kathleen McLean Says:

    Marjorie, your suggestion to “go beyond visitor voices” gets us right to the core issue—we need to include authentic voices in the dialogue of exhibition practice. Your example of volunteers and docents is a lovely one, and I agree that we need to encourage their comments in a more public manner. I would even add curators and other staff members to the mix.

    Ah, you may say, but curators’ voices are already there—thus the need to emphasize visitors and others not traditionally incorporated into exhibitions. And I would argue that the ubiquitous Voice of The Curator seen and heard in almost every museum exhibition is not the same as “the voices of curators.” Rarely do we actually hear the voices of curators and staff who work on exhibitions, with their own personalities and character. We usually get the dry pedantic Voice of The Curator devoid of personality and character.

    Also at the Oakland Museum of California, this past year they experimented with curators writing (and signing) comments about specific artworks in comment books in their Gallery of California Art, and visitor response was active and appreciative for the dialogue with real people—as engaged as they would be with other visitors.

  4. Marjorie Schwarzer Says:


    Honestly, I think curators at most institutions need to figure out how to “get real with the people” and cut through the starched “Voice of the Curator.” This begs the question of just who is intended to hear the “Voice of the Curator” — and I would argue that in most cases it’s the pundits: critics and professional colleagues. This of course gets back to a key issue you’ve been raising for a long time. Professional critic in dialog with professional curator = closed loop. Closed loop = increasing irrelevance.

    Before privileging (once again) the experience-voice of the curator, what about the guards, long-time volunteers, docents, cafeteria workers, cleaning crew, etc? They, as members of the museum-family have interesting perspectives on what and how we exhibit. Oh, I’ve learned so much from cleaning crew members! And, long-time volunteers at the Oakland Museum. We tend to dismiss our elders and the people who pick up after us too easily.

    In my many museum visits this year around the country, I can’t think of a single exhibition I’ve experienced that is breaking new ground in regard to visitor voices without programmed facilitation by a live human. I did like Nathan Richie’s exhibition at the Chicago Peace and Freedom Museum on the electoral process. It incorporates dialog and a voting process. But, I still think that public radio is light-years ahead in the way they are combining the expert-voice of the curator-journalist with listener-voices.


  5. Brad Larson Says:

    Very interesting dialogue here! The part that catches my attention is the inclusion of staff/curator voices in exhibits.

    I’ve been doing recording of visitor voices/stories in exhibits the last decade in a variety of exhibits, but I think it’s rare that staff actually become involved. (I can think of one example in Boston’s Children’s Museum, where a certain motivated staff member in the preschool Playspace area regularly added his own songs and puppet shows to the point where repeat visitors would begin to look each time for his new additions to the story kiosk).

    I’m going to put this on my agenda: add a feature to my program that encourages staff participation. Really this might not be much more than text on the screen that says “Staff Comments:” so staff realize they can do this. (It often surprises me how literal we need to be sometimes when giving people instructions for ways they can use a creative technology in the short span of a visit interaction…)

  6. Mariana Salgado Says:

    Marjorie, Kathy and Brad:

    Yes! I really agree with your comments about including the rest of the staff in the exhibition. One strategy might be a feature to a program to encourage staff participation, but another way can be just to open a space for dialogue giving them time to explore the proposed interaction.

    In our trial we invite all the staff one afternoon to come to the stand in the exhibition and leave a comment and get to know the project. The work done in that afternoon with cleaning staff, guards and guides was very useful.
    a) some guards were proactive in inviting the visitors to leave messages because they felt comfortable and engaged with the project;
    b) they came to tell me what has happened with visitors while leaving messages, they gave a lot of good critics and insides to our project;
    c) in their free time in the gallery they answered some visitors’ questions and added provocative comments.
    As I do not work in the museum, for me was important to have this contact with some of them.

    In our case, in the map,the curator’s comments were displayed in parallel to comments coming from visitors but in an specific place of the map. Therefore, it was possible to navigate the map only reading curators’ or visitors’ comments but we did not separate staff comments. Only one comment was signed as coming from a staff member, but the others guards and guides preferred to be anonymous contributors.

    Next time I would like to spend more time in co-designing with staff the possibilities of visitors’ participation.

  7. Kathleen McLean Says:

    Mariana, This sounds like a wonderful project. Could you put it in the Case Studies section with some more information? I think more people would be interested in it than are probably reading the blog.

  8. Mariana Salgado Says:

    There it is. Thanks for encouraging me to write.

  9. Kathleen McLean Says:

    Thank you!

  10. Wayne LaBar Says:

    Hello there, Well while I am not adverse to providing an opportunity for staff’s voices to be involved, I would offer that the point is about two way conversation, So the idea is that the exhibition provides an opportunity for others to have their voices heard. Having staff’s ideas, while great, still is the museum talking to visitors. So I think perhaps Kathy it would be better emphasized to state “converse with the museum” than ‘staff comments.”

  11. Wendy Pollock Says:

    On commenting, conversing, and how to get a real exchange going among those who make museums and those who use them, Nina Simon comes back to this theme often in her blog Museum 2.0 ( – check it out). A few months back, she rightly challenged Visitor Voices as short on specifics — we did mean intend it in part as retrospective, in part inspiration. But it doesn’t stop at the back cover, and we’re glad to see more reports beginning to appear here on ExhibitFiles. Once you’ve made the transition, from a curator-controlled transmission model to a collaborative, community perspective, ideas emerge.

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