Multimedia that matters
First Monday

Multimedia that matters: Gallery-based technology and the museum visitor by Scott Sayre

Throughout the 1990s, many art museums began to struggle with the questions of how and where to integrate interpretive technologies into exhibits and galleries. While early adopters have continued to expand and revise their interpretive technology initiatives, the demands of the Internet and the tighter economics of the second millennium have prevented all but a minority of others from continuing to research and experiment with computer–based interpretive technologies in their galleries. Because of the interrupted evolution of the field, recent advances in technology, and significant changes in audience expectations, there is a growing need for current research in this area of interactive interpretive media in the museum environment. This paper examines recent testing and evaluations of gallery–based interpretive media projects produced by four major art museums and concludes with a summary of findings and recommendations for future research and program development.



About the projects and research
Case studies
Conclusions and recommendations




Interpretation has always been a core component of the art museum experience. Over the last two decades, museums have begun to experiment with the role technology can play in enhancing interpretation beyond the printed label and slide show. In the midy–toy–late 1980s, a small number of institutions invested significant resources in developing computery–based installations to extend and enhance traditional didactics. Early programs including the Art Gallery of Ontario’s Eye Spy: The Search for Quality in Art, the J. Paul Getty Museum’s Red and Black Greek Vases and The Minneapolis Institute of Art’s Arts of Africa. Interactive videodisc programs were the first grand experiments in integrating emerging technologies into the museum galleries. In the early 1990s, evolving database and graphics technologies began to produce full–color, completely data–driven programs such as London’s National Gallery of Art Microgallery and the Minneapolis Institute of Art’s From Silver to Silica: The History of Photography. These exhibits set the stage for a powerful new form of interpretation.


Figure 1: The Minneapolis Institute of Arts in-gallery Interactive Learning Station

Figure 1: The Minneapolis Institute of Arts in–gallery Interactive Learning Station: From Silver to Silica.


Interactive interpretive media, those programs using computer–based applications to deliver information and facilitate learning, became museum versions of world–wide multimedia phenomena. Throughout the 1990s many art museums began to struggle with the questions of how and where to integrate interpretive technologies into exhibits and galleries. This was a challenging problem since many museum traditionalists, particularly curators, were opposed to even considering technology in the galleries, citing competition with the works of art and lack of physical space. Simultaneously, new technological applications such as CD–ROM and Internet–based publications emerged, complicating museum politics by beginning to redefine publication authority and compete for museum resources. In many cases these later applications were perceived as more attractive by museums, since they completely sidestep the political and architectural challenges of integrating technology into traditional gallery environments. The late 1990s saw the emergence of interactive/new media departments in almost every major art museum. Not surprisingly, most effort was directed towards Web development with an emphasis on marketing, given that these efforts often fall outside curatorial authority and potentially drive both visitation and revenue.

Today, most art museums are using some form of technology to provide information to physical and online visitors through everything from audio tours to Web sites and e–mail newsletters. While early adopters such as the Getty and The Minneapolis Institute of Arts have continued to expand and revise their interpretive technology initiatives, the demands of the Internet and the tighter economics of the second millennium have prevented all but a minority of others from continuing to research and experiment with computer–based interpretive technologies in their galleries. Because of the interrupted evolution of the field, recent advances in technology, and significant changes in audience expectations, there is a growing need for current research in this area of interactive interpretive media in the museum environment.

This paper examines four recent gallery–based interpretive media projects and the information resulting from initial testing and evaluation. The projects surveyed were developed and evaluated independently, and the formality and thoroughness of each of the designs vary significantly. The following synthesis describes the design of each of the programs and compares the findings of each, as well as summarizing any program–specific attributes. The paper concludes with a summary of findings and recommendations for future research and program development.



About the projects and research

Four different art museum projects are examined in the paper, representing two traditional museums, the Victoria and Albert’s British Galleries and The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, and two contemporary art museums, the Walker Art Center and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The two traditional museum projects involve the permanent installation of interpretive technology in the architecture of the museums’ galleries, while the technology in both of the contemporary art museums was of an experimental nature, temporarily testing ideas for potential future investment.

Interestingly, contemporary art museums were slower to adopt gallery–based interpretive technology than many traditional art museums. While many contemporary museums exhibit and/or collect media art including computer–based installations, few (the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art being a notable exception) have developed or installed interpretive technology in their galleries. Part of this hesitance may in fact be due to the fine line, particularly for the general public, between what is contemporary art and what is interpretation. The Walker’s Dialog Table, which is discussed later in this paper, serves as an excellent example of this potential problem. Traditional art museums have a much easier time avoiding these problems because of the intrinsic contrast between the historic objects being displayed and the technologies used to interpret them. This contrast at its extremes can cause its own set of unique problems, potentially disrupting a traditional gallery environment with high–tech sounds and images. These are just a few of the many challenges that face all museum technology implementations, and are illustrated in the following examples.



Case studies

Study 1: The Victoria and Albert Museum, British Galleries

The Museum:

The Victoria and Albert (V&A) Museum’s new British galleries, located in central London, opened in November of 2001 and contain the most comprehensive collection of British art and design on view anywhere in the world. The new US$57–million galleries cover over 3,000 square meters on two floors and contain over 3,000 objects. The contents of the galleries combine modern displays, exquisitely restored period rooms and interactive interpretive technology.


Figure 2: Children watching a short in–gallery video loop

Figure 2: Children watching a short in–gallery video loop, "Taking Tea."


The Project:

The redesign of the British Galleries included the development and installation of 20 media–based programs. These programs ranged from short, silent video loops to interactive computer stations. The content of these programs focused around the four central themes addressed by the new galleries. These themes are Style, Who Led Taste?, What Was New?, and Fashionable Living.

Since the British Galleries comprise over 10 percent of the total V&A gallery space, the exhibit designers felt it critical to address a broad range of potential audiences. These audiences include independent learners, families, school groups and students from continuing and higher education. Within these audiences the V&A identified sub–groups including local audiences, ethnic minority groups, foreign visitors, and professional specialists and amateur collectors.

The resulting interactive media and installations were designed to address these audiences with devices that would best match the audience’s interpretive needs while simultaneously considering potential differences in individual learning style. In the end, the media installations included:

  • short passive video loops (with a maximum length of three minutes) illustrating a limited number of concepts;
  • computer–based games requiring visitors to apply their knowledge to solve a problem or answer a question;
  • creative interactives where the visitor makes design choices to create a personalized "product;"
  • social interactives where visitors can contribute their thoughts and feedback to the museum and to larger topical community discussions (connected with the V&A’s Web site);
  • longer, large–topic video programs; and,
  • audio access points, where visitors can choose to listen to a short audio program,

The V&A made a very conscious decision to install most of the media programs in close proximity to the works of art to which they relate. Working with new flat–screen technologies, the museum was able to install the interactives very unobtrusively, sometimes embedded in the wall like a printed gallery label and other times as terminals on small pedestals or counters. The goal of these installations was to create a visual balance between the works of art and the related media where neither is overpowered or made invisible.

To avoid disrupting the gallery environment, audio is used sparingly within the installations. While many are entirely silent, relying on on–screen text, others use subtle environmental sound to create an overall mood surrounding the program. In some cases, audio–only devices were installed next to specific objects. Longer, traditional video programs dealing with groups of objects or themes with audio soundtracks were situated outside of gallery spaces, with seating provided.


Figure 3: Students creating their own Coat of Arms with in–gallery program

Figure 3: Students creating their own Coat of Arms with in–gallery program.



Evaluation techniques were used throughout the development of the British Galleries’ interpretive programs. Prior to program development, a quantitative survey and a focus group was used to gather information on visitor attitudes and gallery use. This information was used to initially define potential audiences and their individual interests. Formative testing was used during program development to test program design and usability as a basis for making iterative improvements.

Once the programs were installed and the new galleries open, further quantitative research was conducted to assess the impact of the new programs on the visitor’s experience. While this research is ongoing, the following summarizes some of the initial findings.


Figure 4: "Design a Bookplate" interface

Figure 4: "Design a Bookplate" interface.



Initial audience research conducted in the old galleries showed that 50 percent of the visitors spent less than 11 minutes in the British Galleries. This was a very short amount of time considering the size of the galleries and the museum’s investment in extensive interpretive labels and text panels. Interviews indicated that visitors were apprehensive about the potential integration of technology into what they considered to be an otherwise tranquil gallery environment. Visitors also indicated that they were interested in the human stories behind the works of art, a common area of interest for many museum visitors. Advanced topics such as style were shown to be of interest, but more limited due to the visitor’s lack of supporting vocabulary.

Preliminary findings from research in the new galleries with installed interpretive media showed significant changes in visitor experience. The most significant change was the fact that 83 percent of the visitors spent over an hour in the galleries. Visitors responded very positively to the integration of technology in the galleries once they experienced it and understood that it didn’t always mean a computer and a glowing screen in the middle of the gallery.

As expected, the visitors’ use of gallery–based interpretive media varied based on the type of media and subject. In follow–up surveys, 26 percent of the visitors reported using one or more of the computer programs and 44 percent reported watching one or more of the video programs. Of visitors using media programs, 94 percent reported feeling that use of the media program(s) had increased their understanding of objects on display. Gallery observation of prototype media programs showed that visitors spent twice the amount of time looking at the related object.

Another conclusion of the V&A during this study was the impact that interpretive media programs have on visitor interaction. Observation showed that visitors were more inclined to engage in conversation and information sharing in galleries containing interpretive media. These social interactions can have the effect of further extending the gallery experience as a personal, shared set of experiences.

Study 2: The Minneapolis Institute of Arts

The Museum:

The Minneapolis Institute of Arts (MIA) is the largest art museum in the upper Midwest, with a collection of over 100,000 objects. The scope of collections ranges from prehistoric to contemporary, with strengths in the areas of Native America, Asia, and decorative arts. The MIA is renowned for its early adoption of media as an interpretive tool. With the formation of an in–house media staff in the mid–1970s and an interactive media group in the early 1990s, the museum has developed and evaluated dozens of different forms of interpretive media.


Figure 5: Off–gallery Interactive Learning Station

Figure 5: Off–gallery Interactive Learning Station: "The Art of Persuasion."


The Project:

In the early 1990s, the MIA’s education department received a million–dollar–plus gift from the General Mills Foundation to develop and incorporate interactive computer learning stations throughout the museums galleries. By 2001, the museum had over two dozen computer learning stations installed, running 15 different internally produced programs.

Throughout the MIA’s program development history, the museum experimented with wide variety of media installations. The original vision was to install the media in as close proximity to the art as possible. Early installations involved the construction of custom desks and casework to house the then bulky equipment. Gallery designers and media staff found this type of installation well suited to the contemporary galleries, but much more difficult in older parts of the building with high ceilings and marble floors where wiring was difficult, acoustics were challenging, and the aesthetic was difficult to complement.

Audio also posed a significant challenge since most of the programs included narrative segments as well as music and sound effects. The MIA shied away from the use of headphones because of a history of related maintenance and hygiene problems. Installation designers experimented with a range of different types of speaker installations to address these issues. Overall, they found that audio solutions were very dependent upon the gallery acoustics and ambient noise level. In very "live" environments, such as the older, marble–floored galleries, they found it to impossible to control these variables, particularly when the gallery was filled with visitors.

In response to the aesthetic and acoustic challenges of installing media in some of its galleries, MIA gallery designers began to create specialized acoustically treated alcoves and rooms to house the media programs in close proximity to the related works of art. These architectural changes solved the sound–control issues, but also distanced the media from the related works of art. Over time the technology changed, with the introduction of smaller computers and flat–screen LCD displays allowing for more and more integrated media installations. Because of this long history, today the MIA has one of the widest arrays of gallery–installed media.


Figure 6: Screen shot from "The Art of Persuasion."

Figure 6: Screen shot from "The Art of Persuasion."



In 2000, the MIA received a large grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services to design and conduct a research project to assess the use and effectiveness of the museum’s significant investment in technology. The research project, called "What Clicks?" was very large in scope, assessing visitor awareness and use of a range of technologies including directory kiosks, interactive computer workstations (learning stations), video loops and two Web sites. The summary here will focus primarily on the findings from the interactive learning stations and video loop research. More information on the other findings can be found in the full "What Clicks?" report referenced at the end of this paper.

The MIA employed a wide range of techniques in assessing visitor use of museum technology. These techniques included general visitor surveys, baseline and post–visit technology awareness surveys, baseline and post–interactive learning station (ILS) surveys, and LCD video focus groups. Beyond visitor use and satisfaction, the MIA research explored general visitor awareness of the gallery–based technology to answer long–standing questions regarding the placement and marketing (signage, etc.) of the programs. The baseline and post-ILS surveys focused on the impact of changes in signage and location. Differing from the V&A’s less formal prototype research methodologies, the MIA used more sophisticated research approaches that collected statistically significant samples ranging from 100 to 500 visitors.


Figure 7: In–gallery LCD video loop "Restoring a Masterwork."

Figure 7: In–gallery LCD video loop "Restoring a Masterwork."



Interactive Learning Stations

The initial 2002 visitor baseline survey revealed that 43 percent of the visitors reported awareness of the ILS programs in the museum’s galleries. In a second survey, conducted in 2003 following changes to the signage and placement of the programs, 53 percent of the visitors reported awareness of the ILS programs. Visibility of the ILS itself was reported as having the most significant impact on visitor awareness; thus, the MIA’s prior attempts to insulate the programs from the galleries are likely to have impacted visitor awareness and use of the programs significantly. One of the most surprising findings was that the majority of users (78 percent in 2002 and 85 percent in 2003) desired the programs to be located in the gallery, close to the works of art. This clearly contradicted previous concerns about competition and conflict with the works of art.

About one–third of MIA visitors reported the use of one or more of the ILS programs at some point during a previous visit. Only a small segment of users reported repeat use of an ILS from one visit to the next. The majority of visitors using the program reported using ILS programs for 5 to 14 minutes. The primary reason given for using the ILS programs was to "learn more about works of art." The main reason given for not using the ILS programs was that the visitor was more interested in looking at the works of art.

The majority (76 percent) of ILS users reported a high level of satisfaction with the overall ease of use, clarity of information and amount of information learned while using the ILS programs. Users indicated a clear preference for information specific to works of art in the gallery, and only a small percentage (23 percent in 2003 and 10 percent in 2002) preferred general art historical background information.

LCD Video Displays

In response to the initial ILS research findings and the apparent success of the V&A’s newly installed programs, the MIA temporarily installed and researched six small LCD video loop displays in its galleries similar to those in the British Galleries. To explore the impact of these programs, the MIA conducted three focus groups. The results found that both visitors with little art expertise and those who are experienced art museum visitors felt the small LCD displays in the galleries enhanced their understanding and appreciation of the related works of art. Participants found the small displays appealing since they did not distract from the overall gallery environment and could be located in very close proximity to the related works of art.

The installation of the screens and content of the program varied significantly from gallery to gallery. Some installations were silent, others incorporated subtle audio soundtracks, and one used headphones. Visitors appreciated these variations, particularly when they were appropriate to the content. Many visitors felt that the "ambient" audio of some of the installations added to the overall gallery experience. In another case — a silent video of an African mask being danced — some visitors felt that the lack of audio reduced the effectiveness of the experience. Screen size was also a variable, ranging from six to ten inches. Many visitors felt that the six–inch display was too small, particularly when displaying text (subtitles, etc.) and most felt that the 10–inch screen was better and not too big.

Visitors felt that limited use of the LCD video screens could enhance the visitor experience by serving as an extension of, rather than replacement for, the traditional text–based labels. And while the length of the video programs ranged from 45 seconds to five minutes, the focus group felt this variation was appropriate, particularly if a longer segment is used to "tell a story." Visitors also felt that it was helpful to indicate the total length of the video and provide a way of restarting longer loops so they could make the most effective use of their time in the galleries.

Overall, the study participants were enthusiastic about the potential use of these LCD displays and encouraged the museum to consider installing more of them where appropriate. This enthusiasm was tempered, however, by a concern about the museum’s becoming overwhelmed by technology, and an appropriate balance was strongly emphasized.

Study 3: The Walker Art Center

The Museum:

The Walker Art Center is an internationally recognized multidisciplinary arts organization with a permanent collection that reflects contemporary artistic developments including the performing arts, film and video. In addition to these more traditional artistic disciplines, in 1996 the Walker formed an internal New Media Initiatives department that has made several significant forays into the electronic arts, both in the form of installations and online projects, but has not made any long–term commitments in this emerging area of collecting. Interestingly, even with these investments in new technology, and its award–winning Web sites (educational portals such as ArtsConnectEd [], a collaboration between the Walker and The Minneapolis Institute of Art; ArtsNetMN [], a four–museum educational partnership; and online art collections in "Gallery 9"), the Walker has been slow to adopt any forms of in–gallery electronic interpretation beyond traditional audio tours.

This is now changing as the Walker has undertaken the largest construction/expansion project in its 77–year history. The new US$90–million Walker expansion, designed by the Swiss architecture firm Herzog and de Meuron, will nearly double the size of the museum and is scheduled to open in 2005. As a part of this new building, the Walker will be developing a number of dedicated educational spaces that will house a variety of types of educational media.


Figure 8: Visitors interacting with the off–gallery "Dialog Table."

Figure 8: Visitors interacting with the off–gallery "Dialog Table."


The Project:

One of the main tools being developed to deliver collection–related interpretive information is a custom–designed installation and interface called the Dialog Table. The design for the table was selected through an international design competition in 2002. The Walker Art Center (WAC) commissioned the winning design by Marek Walczak, Michael McAllister, Jakub Segen, and Peter Kennard and contracted them to build a prototype of the Dialog Table.

Different from the more standard terminal or kiosk approach to gallery–based technology installations, the Dialog Table was designed as a more traditional table to promote social interactions among visitors while providing access to the Walker’s multidisciplinary collections and related interpretive information. Also unique to the table is its one–of–a–kind gesture–recognition interface. Differing from traditional touch screens, mice and trackballs, this system uses video–based tracking of the users’ hands from above to give the illusion that their cast shadows are manipulating the objects, information and tools displayed on the table’s rear projection displays. This abandonment of the physical interface allows the unique opportunity for multiple users to simultaneously manipulate the screen’s contents and to potentially work in collaboration.

The table is designed to allow users to select artworks from a "floating pool" by pinching them between their fingers. Users can drag the artworks onto a variety of tools, which provide information, show relationships to other artworks and even create a virtual postcard. The postcard function generates a printed ticket that the user can take home and use to look up their virtual postcard via the Walker’s Web site. While the prototype table only displays images, it is capable of delivering both audio– and video–based material.


Figure 9: "Dialog Table" interface

Figure 9: "Dialog Table" interface.



During the early phases of building construction, a formative evaluation of the Dialog Table was conducted to test its operation, observe visitor use and behavior and collect feedback. A working prototype of the table was installed in the Walker exhibition Strangely Familiar: Design and Everyday Life (8 June–7 September 2003). Walker New Media Initiatives staff and the table designers are using the results of this evaluation and a related usability lab to make technical and design revisions and to inform future content development.

The evaluation was conducted over five days in a small room where the Dialog Table was installed as a part of the exhibition. An observer was seated in the corner of this room where he or she could watch visitors use the table and take notes using a pre–developed tracking sheet. The recorded information ranged from user demographics to social and computer interactions. Approximately one–third of the 109 users who used the table for four minutes or longer were asked a small number of interview questions by the evaluator to gain a better understanding of their reactions to the project. This limitation of the range of interview information may bias the results in favor of users truly engaged by the table.


Figure 10: Visitors working collaboratively on the  "Dialog Table."

Figure 10: Visitors working collaboratively on the "Dialog Table."



The majority of the table users observed were adult (71 percent) females (55 percent) working in groups of two or more (63 percent). These demographics correspond closely to those of the traditional museum visitor. Nearly all of the interviewed users (94 percent) said they enjoyed using the table. Most found the "shadow–controlled" interface fascinating; however, the observation found that 69 percent had some degree of difficulty using it and 72 percent had problems using the program’s tools. Of the 33 users interviewed, 54 percent said they had some trouble using the table. The contrast between the users’ positive emotional response to the table and their struggle in actually using it is an interesting example of a program’s form potentially overshadowing its function.

Beyond attempting to grasp and drag images, most users (89 percent) used one or more of the program’s tools. The virtual postcard tool was used by 40 percent of the users, while 32 percent read information about the works of art and 24 percent investigated relationships between the works of art. Of the 35 who printed virtual postcard tickets, 75 percent actually took the ticket with them. Of the 16 users interviewed who printed and took a virtual postcard ticket, all stated that they were planning to use it to look up their card on the Walker’s Web site. No statistics are available to show the number of users that actually did.

Most of the interviewed users (76 percent) recognized some of the works of art in the program, and 72 percent expressed an interest in finding those works in the gallery. Even so, most users expressed more interest in the table itself than in its tools or the contents of the program. Part of this disconnect may be due to the fact that there was little agreement as to the purpose of the installation itself. Of all the interviewed users 34 percent saw it as learning tool, 3 percent saw it as work of art, 21 percent saw it as both and 41 percent saw it as something else, "other." Beyond the program’s unique interface, the myriad of technical/usability problems many users experienced may have also posed a significant barrier to greater understanding and appreciation of the program’s content and purpose.

The Walker is now in the process of redesigning the Dialog Table in response to these findings, and is planning on having the revised version up and running when their new building opens next year.

Study 4: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

The Museum:

Originally called the San Francisco Museum of Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) was the first museum on the West Coast devoted solely to twentieth–century art when it opened in 1935. Today, SFMOMA is renowned as one of the world’s most innovative museums of modern and contemporary art, with collections of paintings, sculpture, architecture and design, media arts and photography. Like the Walker, SFMOMA has explored the intersection of art and technology by producing such exhibitions as Bill Viola: Seeing Time Selections from the Pamela and Richard Kramlich Collection of Media Art and 010101: Art in Technological Times.

In 1995, SFMOMA opened an innovative new building designed by renowned Swiss architect Mario Botta. To complement the new building the museum formed an in–house Interactive Educational Technologies program team in the spring of 1994 that debuted three collection–based programs in early 1995. These programs were installed in specialized learning space located between galleries. Since this time, the IET team has continued to produce a range of educational CD–ROM and Web–based projects, which are presented in the museum galleries, in the museum’s new Koret Visitor Education Center, and online at through the museum’s Web site (


Figure 11: Visitors interacting with the in–gallery "Smart Table."

Figure 11: Visitors interacting with the in–gallery "Smart Table."


The Project:

In the spring of 2001, SFMOMA premiered an innovative special exhibition, Points of Departure. This extremely ambitious project incorporated four different prototype technology installations to provide gallery–based interpretation of the works of art and represent the voices and working processes of the artists. Differing from previous SFMOMA installations, Points of Departure’s interpretive technologies were available directly within the exhibition galleries along with traditional tools including introductory texts and extended object labels. SFMOMA’s Education Department collaborated closely with the curators of painting and sculpture in the definition of exhibition themes, the selection of works of art, and the development of short video montages about each of the six galleries that comprised the show. The goal was to investigate and better understand how the museum’s visitors interact with and combine these various forms of interpretation, both analog and digital.

The design, installation and content of each interpretive–technology installation differed.

"Smart Tables" consisted of a waist–high table that contained a 20–inch flat, touch–screen monitor mounted upward as a part of the surface of the tabletop. The table was designed for standing visitors and included two hard–wired handsets that visitors could use to listen to the curators and artists discuss the works of art around them. The Smart Table contained a wide range of digital video clips that played automatically as an "attract sequence" or could be interactively selected via the touch–screen interface.

The "IPAQ Gallery Explorer" was a handheld interpretive program running on a Compaq IPAQ computer. The IPAQ units and headphones were issued to visitors upon entering the gallery. Visitors could use the unit’s touch–screen interface to access artist interviews and/or process footage, three videos for each of the six thematic galleries. These videos were also available on the Smart Tables.

A version of the museum’s Making Sense of Modern Art, a Flash–based Web site, was installed as a kiosk program in a section of the gallery. This more traditional multimedia program provides a rich interactive experience during which visitors can learn about modern art through personal exploration. The installation consisted of two 20–inch flat–screen displays installed in learning carrels along with speakers, a mouse, and multiple chairs for individual or group use.

The fourth interpretive installation was a program called "Make Your Own Gallery." This installation encouraged visitors to create their own virtual exhibitions of works of art from the exhibition using a Flash–based program. Visitors could assemble a personalized exhibition, save it, and view exhibitions other visitors had assembled.


Figure 12: Screen shot from "Smart Table."

Figure 12: Screen shot from "Smart Table."



During the Points of Departure exhibition the Museum conducted a number of summative evaluations. These assessments were developed with the counsel of colleagues from the Exploratorium and the California Academy of Sciences. Graduate students in museum studies and multimedia design assisted in the data collection.

Assessment tools included brief and in–depth interviews, paper–based surveys, and visitor observation and tracking. Different tools were used to evaluate the different installations, and not all of the installations were fully assessed. The resulting information and data was used to examine individual technologies, but was not comprehensive enough to make comparisons between them.


Figure 13: Visitor learning about Louise Bourgeois via the handheld IPAQ

Figure 13: Visitor learning about Louise Bourgeois via the handheld IPAQ.



Smart Tables

Smart Tables were installed in each of the six galleries in the exhibition. Four of these installations were observed and evaluated slightly differently. A total of approximately 3,000 visitors were observed and tracked in one of the four galleries. Use of the programs varied significantly between galleries, from 8.7 percent (1,740 visitors observed) to 44 percent (97 visitors observed). It is unclear from the published results what contributed to this difference; however, observation in another gallery showed 27 percent use (of 162 visitors), which supports the trend towards the lower percentage with the larger sample. For reference, these percentages can be compared to the 26 percent of visitors who read the gallery intro text and 15 percent who read the object wall labels (both based on an observation of 1,740 visitors).

In all four of the Smart Table gallery observations, visitors using the tables spent more time in the galleries than those who did not. Visitors spent an average of 19 minutes in the overall exhibition. The average time visitors used the Smart Table was 3.25 minutes (1,740 visitors observed). Most table users looked at the original works of art before and after using the program, and most spent at least as much time looking at the works of art in the gallery as those visitors who did not use the program. These findings indicate that programs like the Smart Tables do not necessarily distract from the gallery experience, but instead may add to it.

Women made greater use of the table, averaging 3.75 minutes, while men averaged 2.60 minutes. Visitors in the 40– to 50–year–old age category invested an average of 7.25 minutes, while the 20– to 30–year–olds averaged 3.73 minutes (1,740 visitors observed).

IPAQ Gallery Explorer

During the run of the exhibition, approximately 6,800 visitors used the "IPAQ Gallery Explorer" handheld program. Of these visitors, 125 users responded to a paper–based survey. Of respondents, 70 percent felt the program was easy to use and the majority felt that the video, text and audio clarity was good. The average length of time visitors borrowed the units was 35 minutes.

When asked what part of the program they most appreciated, the largest percentage of the respondents (30 percent) stated that they enjoyed seeing the artists talk about their work and work process. When asked what they liked least about the program, 35 percent expressed frustration with the units malfunctioning, followed by 16 percent who felt the units were anti–social. The survey found that the majority (54 percent) of IPAQ users wanted the units to contain more information, and 30 percent wanted neck straps so they could wear the unit when not in use. Overall, 83 percent of the surveyed users felt that use of the IPAQ improved their exhibition experience, particularly their understanding of the art they were looking at.

Making Sense of Modern Art and Make Your Own Gallery

Very little information was collected or published on visitor use ofMaking Sense of Modern Art. Most sampled visitors expressed confusion regarding the purpose of the Make Your Own Gallery program. This may be due to the fact that this type of experience is not usually offered to visitors in a museum, or because the design of the program and/or instructions may be confusing. Users also expressed frustration with the program’s speed and the size of images in the program. Another interesting response was that very few visitors had an interest in e–mailing themselves the exhibitions they built or accessing them via the Web. Once again, the results are too small and informal to support any conclusions about the public interest or utility of this program.



Conclusions and recommendations

The studies examined here illustrate the wide range of opportunities and potential issues involved in the integration of interpretive media in museum galleries. Recurring themes in the studies include visitor acceptance and use; impact on the time spent in the gallery; physical integration; understanding of program purpose; usability and reliability; and, content–related presentation strategies. While no technology is a panacea in itself, and all of these findings are affected by a large number of variables, there are a number of consistent conclusions that can inform future decision–making and program development.

One of the most positive, recurring findings is that the majority of museum visitors show some degree of interest in interactive interpretive media. Most visitors using these programs feel they enhance and extend the gallery experience rather than distracting from or conflicting with it. None of the studies showed substantial visitor resistance to the idea of media in the galleries. The reasons cited for not using programs most often have to do with time restrictions, lack of interest in that form of interpretation (i.e., learning style), and intimidation, often having to do with a perceived lack of computer literacy.

A related concern, that the programs might reduce the amount of time that visitors spend with works of art, is also proven false through these studies. In most cases, visitor time actually increases in galleries that contain interpretive media programs, and the time visitors spend looking at the works of art before and after their use of media programs remains the same or increases compared to the time spent in the gallery by visitors who did not use a program. Another interesting facet that needs further investigation is the amount of time program users spend with other gallery didactics versus with the art itself. Visitor comments tend to suggest that they actually spend more time looking at art than reading gallery labels after using an interpretive media program.

One valid concern that is often voiced by both museum staff and the general public is the subtlety and balance of interpretive gallery installations with the rest of the gallery. Particularly in more traditional museum environments like the Victoria and Albert Museum and The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, visitors expressed a desire for the close integration of interpretive technology while simultaneously requesting that installation is done tactfully, and on a limited scale, so as not to significantly interfere with the visual and acoustic aesthetics of a personal museum experience. Advances in technology such as wireless networks and small, flat–screen LCD monitors facilitate less intrusive integration. However, the use of audio in interpretive media, particularly narration, still remains challenging. While many users expressed appreciation and interest in expanding the use of music and/or ambient soundtracks in certain gallery environments, only a fraction of visitors make use of headphones or audio wands when using an interpretive media installation. This leaves media producers the choice of relying on subtitles or continuing to experiment with acoustically isolated speaker designs.

Artist interviews are interesting only when the production and the artists themselves are interesting. The same holds true for almost any subject.

Another interesting finding seems to be the importance of visitors’ understanding a program’s purpose before investing themselves in it. The more experimental a program is in design or content, the greater the barrier to widespread use. Most visitors have a limited amount of time to spend in museums, and because of this make their investments in time based on an understanding of what the return will be. A short video loop is very accessible with no technological learning curve and a familiar deliverable. Highly experimental projects like the Walker Art Center’s Dialog Table and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s Make Your Own Gallery don’t make their purpose clear to most museum visitors. And while the potential impact of these atypical programs on the future of museum multimedia may be tremendous, so are the barriers to visitor use. Experimental designs require extra attention to make the user’s experience as intuitive as possible, and need instructions explaining not only how to use the program, but what visitors can expect to get in return for their investment of time and attention.

Program time is another variable that appears to impact visitor response. While there is no overall magic time for a gallery–based linear video program, durations should be kept to the minimal time necessary to convey key information. Two to five minutes appears to be appropriate for most non–seated looped installations. Visitors want museums to clearly specify the duration of a linear audio or video program or sequence within interactive programs so they have an idea how much time they will spend watching the program.

Some of the greatest frustrations for visitors using interpretive media are technical and usability problems. Programs lacking extensive user and load testing can quickly generate a negative stigma for the overall user experience when they fail. Once again, cutting–edge designs and technologies are often the most prone to perceived or actual failure. In cases where a program has not been tested for usability, visitors may perceive problematic interface or content design as a technical failure. In other cases, cutting–edge hardware and custom software often prove to be less reliable than later, time–tested versions. Early adopters of interpretive handheld devices currently face many of these problems.

Finally, effective content design is still one of the greatest challenges. The most effective media programs are those where the content is appropriately produced and matched with the media and target audience(s). In this equation, a US$3000, three–minute video loop can be just as powerful as a US$50,000 interactive multimedia program, or even more so. The strength and appropriateness of the content is always key. While visitor surveys may say that they want more of this or less of that, they are often drawing these conclusions based on previous experiences. Artist interviews are interesting only when the production and the artists themselves are interesting. The same holds true for almost any subject. The most exciting interpretive programs are those that can make previously mundane or incomprehensible content come to life and become accessible for the first time to a new audience. This is both the challenge and potential of these continuously emerging interpretive media in art museums. End of article


About the author

Scott Sayre is a founding Principal of Sandbox Studios Inc. and specializes in guiding museums in the design, development and application of new technologies for learning. From 1991–2002 he was the Director of Media and Technology and the Interactive Media Group at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (MIA). There he formed and led the museum’s Interactive Media Group in the development of (1997), the Institute’s Web site (1993), and sixteen interactive multimedia programs installed throughout the museum’s galleries. He has a Doctorate in Education from the University of Minnesota and also holds a M.Ed. in Training and a B.A. in Visual Communications Technology.



N. Brod, 2002. "Diving in at the deep end: The British Galleries at the Vamp;A," In: Museums and the Web 2002 Conference Proceedings, at, accessed 1 December 2004.

G. Durbin, 2002. "Interactive learning in the British Galleries, 1500–1900," paper presented at the Interactive Learning in Museums of Art and Design Conference (London, England, 17–18 May), at, accessed 1 May 2005.

D. Lawrence–Schafer, 2003. "Evaluating the visitor experience in Points of Departure," unpublished report, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, Calif.

J. Ockuly, 2003. "What clicks?" at, accessed 1 December 2004.

M. Pezalla–Granlund, 2003. "Walker Art Center Dialog Table evaluation report," unpublished report prepared for the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, Minn.

P. Samis, 2001. "Points of Departure: Curators and educators collaborate to prototype a ‘Museum of the Future’," In: David Bearman and Franca Garzotto (editors). International Cultural Heritage Informatics Meeting: Proceedings from ICHIM01, volume 1. Toronto, Canada: Archives and Museum Informatics, pp. 623–637.

S. Sayre, 2001. "Multimedia investment strategies at The Minneapolis Institute of Arts: Preparing for the inevitable ‘tomorrows’," In: Barry and Gail Dexter Lord (editors). The Manual of Museum Exhibitions. Walnut Creek, Calif.: Altamira Press. pp. 236–240.

S. Sayre, 1998. "Justifying, developing and integrating educational technology in the art museum environment," In: Ann Mintz and Selma Thomas (editors). The Virtual and the Real. Washington, D.C.: American Association of Museums, pp. 129–144.

S. Sayre, 1993. "The evolution of interactive interpretive media: A report on discovery and progress at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts," In: Diane Lees (editor). Museums and interactive multimedia: Selected papers from the Second International Conference on Hypermedia and Interactivity in Museums [also the Sixth International Conference of the MDA]. Cambridge, England: Museum Documentation Association and Toronto, Canada: Archives and Museum Informatics. pp. 41–51.

Editorial history

Paper received 19 April 2005; accepted 30 April 2005.

Copyright © 2005, Scott Sayre.

Multimedia that matters: Gallery–based technology and the museum visitor
by Scott Sayre
First Monday, Volume 10, Number 5 - 2 May 2005

A Great Cities Initiative of the University of Illinois at Chicago University Library.

© First Monday, 1995-2019. ISSN 1396-0466.