by Regan Forrest

Regan Forrest is a PhD Candidate at the University of Queensland. She may be contacted at

…visiting an exhibition is an embodied experience: we don’t passively watch an exhibition, we actively move through it, and it is only through our activity that the exhibition experience manifests itself.


Research by psychologists working in museum settings (e.g. Bitgood, 2011) has demonstrated that visitor behaviour is neither completely predictable nor totally chaotic, but rather that there are distinct patterns in visitor movement and behaviour. (That’s why I think the dance analogy is so apt.) And to some extent at least, these patterns in visitor behaviour can be influenced through design choices.

For at least the last 40 years, retail designers have been using design tricks in subtle (and not so subtle) ways to entice us to buy. A whole body of research known as atmospherics has built up around how the sights, sounds, and even smells of service environments can signal our subconscious and influence our behaviour. And as I have argued recently, atmospherics offers a useful framework for understanding the role design can play in museum visitor experiences (Forrest, 2013b). In this context, the exhibition environment can itself be considered an interpretive medium.

Used judiciously, interpretive design features confer an overall character to
an exhibition. When design and content are congruent, the visitor experience is enhanced. However, design intent does not necessarily correlate with visitor interpretation. I’ve observed in my own research that some design cues are too subtle for most visitors to notice—for instance subtle changes in colour palette or lighting effects may go undetected when visitors’ attention is primarily focused on objects and labels. This is not necessarily problematic in itself, although there is of course an economic argument for not spending a significant proportion of an exhibition’s budget on features that will be missed by a majority of visitors. More problematically, design features can be misinterpreted, such as a deliberately rough-hewn exhibit seen as being shoddy or unprofessional. This can create a sense of dissonance that can in some instances lead to outright rejection of the exhibition’s interpretive message (Brown, 2011; Roppola, 2012). Thus design approaches as well as an exhibition’s content should be the subject of evaluation.

Narrative and Sense-Making

When visitors enter an exhibition, they have to simultaneously make sense of
the space they are in as well as the story being told within it. If too many cognitive resources are expended on the former, there will be precious little left for the latter. Therefore, understanding how visitors interpret their surroundings is an important facet of designing effective exhibitions.

The visitor journey through the exhibition has been described in terms of channelling (Roppola, 2012): spatial channels guide the physical journey; narrative channels guide the conceptual journey; semiotic channels guide visitors in their sense- making of different interpretive media. Seating slows visitors down, whereas

long corridors tend to speed them up. Doorways, or even a narrowing caused by the positioning of display cases, tend to separate spaces both spatially and conceptually. This in turn influences visitor behaviour.

Narrative is a way of considering the exhibition as a gestalt: does everything hang together? Exhibit elements that interfere with each other or otherwise fail to coalesce in a coherent way can disrupt sense-making (repeat offenders in this regard: sound bleed between audio exhibits and labels positioned too far away from the objects they relate to). Furthermore, if a visitor is expecting a clear narrative, then the absence of
one can be disconcerting and lead to an exhibition being dismissed as all mixed up,” “all over the place,” “cluttered,” or having “no real point” (visitors quoted in Roppola, 2012, pp.204-205). But making a narrative too explicit or prescriptive can provoke resentment amongst visitors who don’t like the feeling of being dictated to (Forrest, 2013a). It can sometimes feel like it’s a fine line to walk between the two: one visitor’s reassuring guidance may be another’s annoying constraint. By way of illustration, compare these two visitor quotes from my own research:

“…it’s very difficult to choose where you’re going to go from here. You almost need like directions about where you should be starting…”

“…[the gallery] makes you wind around, which is probably intentional…”

…”but, sometimes it’s nice to be able to see a big view and work out ‘yes I’m interested in one particular aspect I’m heading over there,’ whereas you are forced to wander around the gallery to find something.”

The first visitor clearly wants guidance so she can be sure she is on the correct path and has ‘seen everything.’ The second is more concerned with being able to follow his own interests with as few detours as possible. The two perspectives are in tension with one another, but are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Design cues including lighting, colour coding, and changes of floor finish can all help ‘chunk up’ spaces both physically and conceptually without necessarily constraining visitor movement. A well thought through hierarchy of interpretive signage can help those visitors who want to scan an environment for the elements that interest them the most.

Designing the Visitor-Exhibit Dance

Visitor behaviour may be more probabilistic than predictable. Even so, design can be used to make some routes through an exhibition space appear inherently more inviting or logical than others. Enticing views of what lies beyond can help propel visitors along. On the other hand, visitors can be repelled by dark, narrow corridors or stairways that don’t obviously lead anywhere (no one wants the embarrassment of accidentally wandering somewhere they’re not supposed to be).

In closing, I would recommend the following for the designer-choreographer’s toolkit:

  • In terms of space syntax properties. Are there enough choice points? Too many? Are there integrated routes that can aid navigation?
  • Pay attention to the attractive power of sight lines and juxtaposition of exhibits so that spaces appear coherent and organised, even if visitor flow need not be regimented.
  • As design can be a tool of communication, it can also be a tool for miscommunication. Be aware that certain visual motifs might have unintended connotations in particular social, cultural or age segments. This might need formative evaluation.

Just as there is no such thing as “the” perfect dance, there is no perfect prescription for choreographing the visitor experience. The visitor-exhibit interplay is too complex for that. But it’s a complexity that rewards detailed research and discussion. And long may that continue.

Main photo: Concevoir