Finding Significance
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Finding Signifiance: Report

Design of Study | Types of Enhancements |
Findings | Implications for Museum Professionals




Our Research Question

If we incorporate narratives or inquiries into existing exhibits, will visitors be more likely to think deeply about the exhibits, explore them more fully, and in particular, to make more connections between the exhibits and visitors' own lives?

Our Methods

  1. We chose three exhibits from our collection.
  2. For each exhibit, we created different types of video enhancements, some of which were inquiry-based and some of which were narrative-based.
  3. For each Narrative or Inquiry enhancement developed for each exhibit, we created four separate video clips, each with a different narrator and approach. We did this to try to increase the possibility that visitors would find something of personal relevance.
  4. We refined the enhancements by testing them with visitors (formative evaluation).
  5. We rigorously studied the final enhancements by interviewing cued visitors, making follow-up phone calls several months later, and observing uncued visitors.
  6. We compared the experiences of visitors who had used the exhibit with one of the enhancements against the experiences of visitors who had used the exhibit in its Baseline state (without the video). This helped us determine whether the videos had, in fact, enhanced visitors' meaning-making.

Our Audience

Target Audience Museum visitors (including both adults and children)
Unit of Analysis The family (or other visiting group)

We aimed both the narratives and the inquiries towards adult visitors because they tend to be the label-readers and interpreters, whereas children are often likely to be the ones who initiate physical interaction with an exhibit.

The Exhibits we Chose

Over the four years of the project, we studied visitors' reactions to four exhibits:

Light Island (pilot study)
A table-top exhibit with a central light source of white light and many devices for altering the light, including filters, lenses, and mirrors.

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Aeolian Landscape
A contemplative exhibit with sand swirling in a cylindrical chamber, in which visitors can watch sand dunes and mini-avalanches, and change the direction of a fan that blows across the landscape.
Touch the Spring
An exhibit where Visitors reach out to grasp a realistic-looking spring, only to discover that it has no substance—the spring they see is only an image produced by a parabolic mirror.
Mutant Fruit Flies
Exhibit displaying living fruit flies that have various genetic mutations, resulting in features like eyes with unusual colors or the absence of wings.

Why we studied existing exhibits instead of making new ones

By designing the enhancements as “add-ons” to existing exhibits, we could allocate most of our resources to research rather than to new exhibit development. Also, we could use the original versions of the exhibits as a form of baseline (or control) condition to compare with the enhanced versions, to find out whether the enhancements actually increased visitors' meaning-making. There was only one disadvantage to our decision: It meant that we were studying exhibits that were not specifically designed to support the enhancements we created for them.

Why we put our stories into videos instead of labels with text and graphics

The Exploratorium is chaotic and noisy, so we searched for ways to make the exhibit enhancements as engaging and compelling as possible. We chose a video format rather than audio or text because we thought it would be most likely to attract and sustain visitors, particularly in the case of personal storytelling.

Why most of our videos have plain blue backgrounds and no music

We avoided using music, colorful backgrounds, or “B-roll” footage in our videos, because such features were not central to the concepts being tested (viz., narrative and inquiry) and were difficult to standardize across all enhancements so that none would have an “unfair” advantage. This is something researchers often do - to control or standardize some of the variables in an experiment so that the results will show only the effects of the factors of interest.

Why we used actors

Most of our videos feature actors rather than the original people who told us their stories about the exhibits. We found that actors were better at telling a story over and over (as we required to get high quality video). Also, by using the same speakers for both the narratives and inquiries, we could control for the age, gender, race, and personality of the speaker, variables that might have affected our results.





Technique 1: Standard Narrative

Standard Narratives were personal stories about an exhibit. They came from museum staff, scientists, or artists, and were spoken by actors. See Video.

Features of Standard Narratives

  • Spoken in the first person (“I”)
  • Involved a series of events
  • Contained emotional content, or relevance to human concerns
  • Fundamentally about the exhibit
  • Did not explain the principles behind the exhibit
  • Authentic in origin, in the sense that someone really told us the story

Key results

Standard Narratives

  • Got people thinking
  • Engaged people's background interests or pleasures (especially in science)
  • Were memorable


  • Narratives did not affect the number or nature of connections visitors made to their own lives
  • Narratives reduced experimentation and discovery at the exhibit.
It's good to have other people's thoughts and opinions. When you're thinking by yourself your own mind rarely surprises itself.

They just gave you some kind of more human thought on it. Brought up topics as to why this means anything.

I think it adds a different dimension. Without the videos, there's only the more scientific explanations, with the rays of light and stuff. But these relate it to other life experiences, like making the mirror more interesting in the one about the spy satellite.

Technique 2: Standard Inquiry

Standard Inquiries were invitations to visitors to try small activities not already mentioned in the label, or to imagine related situations and engage in thought experiments. See Video.

Features of Standard Inquiries

  • Spoken directly to visitors, often addressing them as “you”
  • Invited visitors to explore or think about the exhibit
  • Not personalized, in that they did not reveal anything personal about the speaker
  • Spoken in a “friendly teacher” tone
  • Usually phrased as a question, and
  • Brief in comparison with narratives.

Key results

Standard Inquiry enhancements increased the number of connections visitors made to their own lives. The Inquiries also got visitors thinking, helped them talk with others in their group, and extended the time that visitors chose to spend at the exhibits. Inquiry visitors said they had answered the questions posed to them in the videos, but they generally did not go beyond the questions to try their own experiments.
They're interesting and short so you don't sit for a long time; they make you think.

It brought us into what we're supposed to look at. It didn't give you a conclusion but allowed you to get there on your own.

It gave you something to look for. It gave something to discuss with others. It had focused questions. If I had been by myself, with no video, I would have just looked and left.

Technique 3: Multi-step Inquiry

Created as a variation on Standard Inquiry, Multi-step inquiry used a series of video clips that built on each other to create a large cycle of exploration. See Video.

Features of Multi-step Inquiry

Visitors were encouraged to
  • Find a phenomenon
  • Make close observations
  • Understand the mechanism underlying the phenomenon
  • Relate the phenomenon to others in the larger world

Key results

The results for Multi-step Inquiry, which used a series of video clips that built on each other, were similar to those for Standard Inquiry, so we do not discuss them in detail.


Technique 4: Commentary


Commentary was an experimental Narrative which did not involve actors. Instead, the speakers commented on what they found personally meaningful or significant about the exhibit. See Video.

Key results

Commentary visitors were less likely than Baseline visitors to report having discovered or figured out something about the exhibit, and less likely to reach into the exhibit to find the real spring hidden inside. The Commentary videos did increase the exhibit's holding time above that observed with the Baseline exhibit.


Technique 5: Unfolding Drama


One of the experimental narratives was an unfolding drama called “X-12 Rocket Ship,” created by filmmaker Jona Frank. Children played the acting roles in a humorous story reminiscent of a 1950s television space-adventure series, with various special effects and cliffhanger endings. See Video.

Key results

This unfolding drama increased the holding time of visitors over Baseline, but showed no other effects.


Technique 6: Extended Story

For this experimental narrative, professional storyteller Diane Ferlatte created a single extended story about the wind as an agent of change, which she performed to a drum accompaniment. See Video.

Key results

Visitors who used the exhibit with the Extended Story made connections to their own lives that more frequently involved both causes and effects. For example, Extended Story visitors were more likely than Baseline visitors to talk about the effects of wind or other change agents in their own lives. They were also more likely to say they had thought about something other than what was already in the labels or video – usually something about their own childhood experiences.


Technique 7: Art Video


For the final experimental narrative, Exploratorium filmmaker Elisabeth Spencer created a lively four-minute video piece called “Hair Piece” that combined still and video photography of people with wind-blown hair, edited to the Bo Diddley tune Mumblin' Guitar. See Video.

Key results

The Art Video showed no effects over Baseline on any of our measures.






Summary of Comparisons

Overall, both the Standard Narrative and Inquiry enhancements were seen by visitors as an improvement to the exhibit, and both enhanced some aspects of engagement and meaning-making. However, Inquiry visitors scored higher than Narrative on several measures, and only Inquiry visitors were able to make more connections between the exhibit and their lives than the Baseline group. The various experimental inquiries and narratives showed no advantage over the Standard Inquries and Narratives, with one exception. The Extended Story elicited personal connections of a cause-and-effect nature, and got visitors thinking about their lives beyond the exhibit labels and video.


What visitors valued in their favorite clips

As part of the study, visitors told us what they liked or disliked about the video clips.

•  For the Narratives, visitors valued videos that were relevant to the exhibit, easy to relate to, informative, and new to them; that gave an understandable explanation of what the exhibit was made of, how it was built, how it works, or of a key concept; that showed the process behind an exhibit, including its history, creator, or purpose; and that were personal, true, or funny.

•  For the Inquiries, visitors valued videos that were relevant to the exhibit , connected to the real world, new to them, challenging, hands-on, surprising, or funny; and that gave them things to look for, or got them thinking.

•  For all types of videos, visitors valued speakers who were clear, personable, plausible, and interested.


Highlights from the follow-up interviews

We interviewed visitors by phone about four months after their visit, to find out whether their experience with the exhibits had connected with their lives in some way. Some of the overall results were as follows:

•  Fully 60% of visitors had talked to someone else about their experience since leaving the museum. The most common topic was the research aspect: the recruitment process, interview, or thank-you gift.

•  For 28% of visitors, something in their lives since their visit had reminded them of the exhibit. Most had been stimulated by experiences in nature or through informational media such as television or the internet.

•  When asked whether their experience with the exhibit had changed the way they looked at something else in their lives, 22% of visitors said ‘yes.'

Well, it kind of changed the way I look at mirrors. I mean, a flat piece of glass or something can be curved and do amazing things.

Yeah, a lot of things. You think your husband is doing something you think is bad but he's actually not. Or the kids, that they're actually doing something but they're not. You see, human beings sometimes see things that aren't really what it looks like. Sometimes… when you double look again, you see it the right way.

It has changed my excitement and feeling on projects I can do at home, sort of rekindled the tinkerer within, and the artist too—my interest in doing kinetic sculpture.


  • Adding Inquiries and Narratives to existing exhibits can enhance the visitor experience. Visitors said that the video enhancements provided multiple perspectives on the exhibits, stimulated thought, and improved the exhibits overall. Such improvements might have been even greater if the enhancements and exhibits had been more fully integrated from the outset.
  • Both Inquiries and Extended Stories can help visitors make personal connections, but not radically novel ones. Inquiries helped visitors make connections between an exhibit and their own lives, while the Extended Story changed the quality of those connections. However, visitors' new connections tend to be closely related to the material in the exhibit enhancements.
  • It may be unrealistic to think we can move visitors in powerful ways with stories about our interactive science exhibits. In trying to bring the power of narratives to interactive science exhibits, we face environmental challenges such as noise, chaos, and uncomfortable seating. Also, it may be that the narrative form simply does not easily mesh with a depersonalized, repeatable display of natural phenomena.
  • Inquiries are much easier to create. We found that Inquiry enhancements were much easier to create than Narratives, and were met with greater visitor appreciation. Inquiries seemed to support family conversation, focusing visitors on intriguing aspects of the exhibits they might not have noticed. One of the features that may have contributed to the Inquiries' success was their brevity; by contrast, Narratives unavoidably required a certain amount of time to unfold.
  • Visitors' responses to the enhancements do not systematically depend on their learning styles, at least as assessed by the “watching versus doing” dimension of the 4MAT Learning Type Measure. Our results therefore challenge to assumptions that only certain kinds of visitors will be engaged by certain types of enhancements.
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