Participatory Experiences in Art Museums: Lessons from Two Years of Practice

Silvia Filippini Fantoni, North Carolina Museum of Art, USA, Kyle Jaebker, Indianapolis Museum of Art, USA, Tiffany Leason, Indianapolis Museum of Art, USA


In an effort to fulfill its mission of developing new audiences, engaging visitors in innovative ways, and providing opportunities to include visitors’ voices in the museum experience, the Indianapolis Museum of Art has developed a number of analog and technology-based participatory projects in the past few years. These included a simple vote on a poll, tagging collection objects online, posting commentaries, and allowing visitors to create and share their own drawings, photographs, or artworks. Such projects have met with different degrees of success, with some enjoying a positive response, while others recorded low levels of engagement.

In this paper, we will provide a detailed description of some of these projects, present the results of in-depth evaluations conducted with visitors, and attempt to draw some conclusions on what worked, what didn’t, issues encountered, and possible solutions. The hope is that this discussion will provide an orientation for other institutions that are interested in offering technology-based participatory experiences for their audiences.

Keywords: participation, user-generated content, visitor-centricity, evaluation

1.   Introduction: The Web 2.0 revolution

In the past decade, a revolution has taken place on the Internet with the advent of what has been called “Web 2.0.” This second generation of the Web, or the ‘participative Web,’ can be dated to the turn of the millennium, although the term Web 2.0 was not coined by Tim O’Reilly and Dale Dougherty until 2004.

This phenomenon is characterized by increased participation and interaction of users who use the Internet to communicate and express themselves. This has been possible thanks to the growth of social Web technologies, which transformed participation from something limited and infrequent to something possible anytime, for anyone, anywhere (Simon, 2010).

The rise of websites such as YouTube, Flickr, Facebook, Twitter, and personal blogs is evidence of this trend. Even corporations have begun to incorporate this social phenomenon into their business. Some examples, among numerous others, are the LEGO Group involving LEGO® Club members in the creation of new kits, or CNN seeking and using viewer-created videos that document news events.

As far as museums are concerned, some have responded negatively to this phenomenon by locking down their content, while others have taken advantage of these technologies and attitudes to build community and audiences. In these institutions, the push for experimentation has come both from staff and from visitors who “no longer accept being solely consumers of information,” but want to contribute their own experiences and interpretations (Grabill, Pigg, & Wittenauer, 2009).

2.   Changing nature of museums

While the proliferation of Web 2.0 technologies is a key factor in the growing interest of certain museums for user-generated content, their progressive implementation can only be explained by a fundamental shift that has characterized museums in the past few decades. In fact, focusing on the visitors and supporting their participation is only a relatively recent trend in museums. For a long time, these institutions were (and some still are) “focused primarily on the growth, care and study of their collections.” As such, they were not accustomed to directing their attention on the public, trying to address their needs, or including their voices (Weil, 1999).

Recent generations, however, have seen some attempts to dismantle the “museum as an ivory tower of exclusivity” (Hooper-Greenhill, 1991), towards the construction of a more socially responsive institution in service to the public. In an institution where the visitor is at the center of the experience, the traditional ideology of the museum as a holder of knowledge and truth with a responsibility to exercise one-way communication to the public no longer makes sense. In the twenty-first-century museum, communication between the institution and the public is exemplified by a mutually respectful relationship, a two-way communication model. Instead of transmitting knowledge to a mass audience, the contemporary museum listens and responds sensitively, as it invites the public into a conversation about the future of the museum, the shaping of exhibitions, programs, and other activities (Hooper-Greenhill, 1991). Such an institution establishes a sense of trust and respect with its audiences, taking on the characteristics of a “forum” (Cameron, 1971).

3.   The Indianapolis Museum of Art’s approach to visitor-centricity

In the past few years, the Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA) has undertaken a significant shift toward becoming a more visitor-centric institution. While art museums are behind other types of museums like science and children’s museums in catering to visitor needs and engaging them in different ways, the IMA is an early adopter of this approach among its peer institutions. Such change has been motivated by two main reasons. First, better understanding visitors and non-visitors and trying to respond to some of their practical and intellectual needs is fundamental when developing content and programs. This approach can help better fulfill the IMA’s educational mission more effectively. For instance, the likelihood that the institution’s desired learning outcomes are met is higher if we can communicate to visitors using a language that it is easy for them to understand, if we structure the information in a way that it easier for them to process, and if we provide a level of comfort that would make people feel more at ease and receptive to what is presented. Successfully fulfilling the museum’s educational mission is even more important in the twenty-first-century “Knowledge Society,” where the need to continuously learn new skills and acquire knowledge has become fundamental. Since individual learning has become a lifelong endeavor, we have witnessed a shift towards an increased need for adult and informal education experiences, which is an area where the IMA, as well as other cultural institutions, can play a key role.

The need to create a more visitor-centered museum is also a matter of sustainability for the IMA. In a world where museums compete with other leisure time activities and where state funds become more and more limited, it is important to implement a bottom-up business approach, based on a deep understanding of its audience and the desire to meet their needs, for the long-term survival of the institution.

The IMA’s approach to visitor-centricity is based mainly on three different strategies, which we have gradually implemented over the past couple of years. First of all the IMA has established a new research and evaluation team, which is responsible for: better understanding its real and potential audiences (e.g., who they are, why they come or do not come to the museum, what they do once they are there, how satisfied they are with their experience, and what else they would be interested in doing or seeing); evaluating  exhibitions and programs; as well as testing ideas, concepts, and prototypes with visitors throughout the various development stages of a project.

Second, we have implemented a more collaborative exhibition development process, led by a core team of representatives from various departments, including evaluators and interpretation specialists, who are charged with prioritizing the needs and interests of visitors and who ensure that learning theories are applied to the process.

Last but not least, the IMA has started to develop a number of participatory projects that allow online and on-site visitors to contribute to the museum experience by creating their own content and sharing it with the public. By providing opportunities to include visitors’ voices in the museum experience, the IMA hopes to engage visitors in more innovative ways, attract new audiences, and contribute to changing the community’s perception of the institution as a more inclusive environment.

4.   The IMA’s latest participatory projects

The museum’s interest in developing participatory experiences is not entirely new. Our first attempts to involve our visitors in creating and providing some content and sharing it with others date back to 2007, when, in conjunction with the Steve project, we developed an application that allowed visitors to tag and write comments about online collection objects. Both of these features, particularly the commenting, had low participation, which led us to remove the functionality from the online collection pages when the website was last updated in 2011. In 2009, we also launched a blog, which gave visitors the opportunity to respond to the entries by posting their own comments, but this has also seen limited participation by visitors.

Around the same time, the museum began a multiyear (2008–2012) series of installations called The Viewing Project, funded in part by a generous grant from Art Mentor Foundation Lucerne, that was designed to offer visitors creative and enjoyable experiences with objects from the IMA’s permanent collection. In these installations, comment cards were always offered, inviting visitors’ thoughts on the works presented and the installations, and in several of the installations a computer station was included with a commenting feature tied to each work of art on display. The project team wanted to offer both digital and analog options and found that the comments received electronically related more to the works of art than other aspects of the experience, most likely due to the prompts on the computer directing people to focus on the artworks. Visitors could also see and respond to others’ comments, although a low percentage engaged in this way. Through these earlier experiments with visitor engagement, we learned that some visitors enjoyed drawing on comment cards instead of writing, and that it was important to show what the participant had contributed instead of it disappearing once submitted.

More recently, the new administration’s focus on visitors and the consequent need to develop more engaging experiences has led to the development of a number of new participatory projects. Most of these applications were made available both online and in the galleries.

My Snapshot

The first of these projects was developed for the Snapshot: Painters and Photography, Bonnard to Vuillard exhibition in summer 2012. This explored the relationship between painting and photography at the dawn of the twentieth century. In conjunction with the exhibition, we launched an online photography competition encouraging museum visitors to submit “snapshots” taken with their cameras or mobile devices. Besides allowing submissions through an online form, the competition website ( – Figure 1) also let visitors express their opinion about specific works through ratings and comments. Facebook Connect was used for the commenting feature so that visitors’ remarks could also be seen on their own Facebook pages and therefore attract new users to the website.

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Figure 1: My Snapshot website page

A jury of experts selected winners and finalists monthly during the run of the exhibition. Monthly winners, as well as the three photographers who at the end of the competition received the most “popular” votes, were awarded a prize. Prizes included digital cameras and gift certificates from a sponsor of the competition. A feed of selected snapshots was projected in a public area just outside the exhibition (Figure 2).

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Figure 2: Projection of selected photographs outside the exhibition

Over the course of the competition’s three-month run, 552 participants submitted 2,681 photos (an average of 4.9 photos per participant). The quality of the photos submitted was extremely high and included some family snapshots, as well as photos taken by amateur and professional photographers about various topics. The competition website recorded almost 34,000 visits by 15,543 unique visitors from all over the world. Engagement with the website was also high, with a good number of visitors voting for their favorite photographs (the most popular photo had almost 3,000 votes). At the end of the competition, over 11 percent of the photos had comments. Most of the comments were of promotional nature, either supporting or inciting visitors to vote. However, a smaller percentage of the comments were of a more analytical nature, discussing the technique, composition, and/or subject of the photograph.

Star Studio photo booth

Given the success of My Snapshot, we decided to launch another photography-related project in Star Studio, the IMA family activity space where visitors can use various art materials to create artworks inspired by works in the IMA collection. Given that most visitors take their creations home with them, we installed a photo booth that allows them to take a photo of their works. The image is then immediately projected in the space for other visitors to see and draw inspiration from (Figure 3).

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Figure 3: Children using the photo booth in Star Studio

The photo booth was developed using existing equipment (a touch-screen computer and camera) and the Sparkbooth software (, which we purchased online for less than $60. Since its installation in early 2013, the photo booth has been extremely successful, with almost twenty thousand pictures being taken. However, rather than photographing their creations, the majority of visitors prefer to take pictures of themselves and their friends and family. Thus the photo booth becomes a way for them to represent themselves and mark their physical presence in the space. While this was not our original intent, the popularity of the photo booth and recognition of the fact that it is important for visitors, particularly at a young age, to explore and express their identities, we decided to keep it. We are currently in the process of developing it further by adding a number of filters that would allow visitors to turn their photos into different styles of self-portraiture (e.g., neo-impressionist, pop-art), and thus learn about certain artistic movements in the process. This new version of the photo booth will be installed in fall 2014.

According to Ai Weiwei

Our third participatory project was developed in the summer of 2013 in conjunction with a retrospective exhibition of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. Dialogue with his audience is an important aspect of Ai Weiwei’s artistic practice. Besides being active on Twitter, he also had a blog with thousands of followers—it was unfortunately shut down by the Chinese government. In order to establish a more direct dialogue with the IMA audience, before the exhibition opened, we asked Ai Weiwei several questions about his life, practice, and passions. Video responses provided by Ai were made available both online ( – Figure 4) and on site at computer stations located just outside the exhibition (Figure 5). Visitors were encouraged to watch Ai’s responses and then provide their own reactions, first by answering a poll and then by providing a more detailed response to the question. Selected comments were then displayed on a screen near the kiosk, outside the exhibition. Our hope was that this user-generated content would help to build a broader online conversation about subjects addressed in Ai’s practice amongst our audience, the institution, and the artist himself.

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Figure 4: According to Ai Weiwei website homepage

Unfortunately, Ai Weiwei was not able to respond to visitors’ comments, as well as issues related to the location of the kiosk (outside rather than inside the exhibition), resulted in a much more limited participation than the previously described projects both on site (observation and anecdotal evidence) and online (Google analytics: 2,677 visits by 2,208 unique visitors). By the end of the exhibition, which was visited by over 25,000 visitors, we only had 665 poll responses and 193 comments. Feedback from the evaluation showed that visitors found it challenging to express themselves in writing, particularly when it came to more complex and abstract questions about the themes of the exhibition, such as: “Do you think your work helps people to better understand the scope of tragedies and other aspects of life today?” and Who do you see as a primary audience for your work?

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Figure 5: According to Ai Weiwei kiosk outside the exhibition

Inspired by Matisse

Given that asking people to express themselves in writing proved more difficult for visitors, for our next project we decided to try something more creative. With the Matisse, Life in Color exhibition in fall 2013, we launched a drawing competition encouraging visitors to create drawings inspired by the works of the French artist. The drawings could be made using an app available on a number of iPads installed in the Davis Lab, a dedicated space opposite the exhibition entrance, which for the occasion became the Inspired by Matisse studio (Figure 6). Once created, visitors could then submit the digital drawings via the app to a dedicated competition website ( – Figure 7) where people could view submissions and express their opinion about specific works through ratings and comments (via Facebook Connect). Drawings also could be submitted off site using a form available on the website. The competition website was also accessible through two kiosk stations in the Inspired by Matisse studio, together with video material and large scale visuals of works by Matisse that could be used as a source of inspiration by visitors.

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Figure 6: Inspired by Matisse studio

A jury of experts selected winners and finalists monthly during the run of the exhibition in four age categories (0–5; 6–12, 13–17 and 18+). The submissions selected by the jury and the top forty receiving most “popular” votes were exhibited in digital format in an Inspired by Matisse gallery inside the exhibition, together with select drawings and writing compositions in analog format submitted by school children.

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Figure 7: Inspired by Matisse website homepage

As far as the technology is concerned, we used Drawing Pad, an iPad app available on the App store (, which was slightly modified by the developers to fit our purposes (Figure 8). The competition website was the same we developed for My Snapshot (which was built on the Drupal CMS). We only slightly modified the look and feel to match the Matisse exhibition branding.

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Figure 8: Inspired by Matisse drawing app

During the four-month period in which the Inspired by Matisse competition was open (September 6, 2013, to January 12, 2014), we received almost 4,000 submissions, mostly made in the studio. According to the evaluation that we conducted, a percentage of Inspired by Matisse studio visitors created drawings without submitting them, thus suggesting that the number of drawings actually created in the space was probably much higher. Submissions were made by visitors of various age groups (0–5: 12 percent; 6–12: 38 percent; 13–17: 13 percent; 18+: 37 percent), and social context (e.g., alone, with another adult, with kids), indicating that the competition and the studio appealed to different audiences.

Just like My Snapshot, the quality of most submissions was very high, and so was the competition website visitation, with almost 31,000 visits by 12,296 unique visitors. Engagement with the participatory aspects of the site particularly commenting, however, was less successful than My Snapshot (only 3 percent of the submissions had comments), probably due to the young age of most participants, who might not have been able to use their Facebook account to leverage voting/commenting.

Visitors’ feedback about their experience with the Inspired by Matisse studio, website, and gallery was also very positive. Satisfaction level ranged from 4.34 to 4.65 out of 5 for the various aspects of their experience, with many participants and non-participants expressing positive opinions about the initiative:

LOVED LOVED LOVED the Inspired by Matisse gallery. So glad to see the IMA is finally allowing the public (especially schools and students) to be a part of these exhibitions and giving the community a sense of ownership in the collections and shows.


I was most interested in…seeing how much the community has responded to his artwork, starting at such a young age! Even some of the preschooler’s work was impressively eye-catching.


Usually, you don’t get to show your perspective on what you take away from the art. I thought that was cool and unique.


I really liked looking at the ages when I was looking through the pieces to see how the younger kids are using the iPads and technology along with the older participants like myself.

Given the success of this project, we will launch a new iteration at the end of March, entitled Inspired by Nature, in which visitors will be asked to create drawings inspired by works in the IMA’s permanent collection depicting nature, as well as by the IMA gardens and grounds.

5.   Lessons learned

The experience accumulated in the past two years, and the feedback collected from our visitors through remedial and summative evaluations, have allowed us to draw some important conclusions regarding what does and does not work when it comes to participatory projects. It also helped us confirm some of the assumptions concerning the benefits for museums and participating visitors brought about by the implementation of such experiences.

The first and probably most important lesson we have learned is that not all participatory projects are necessarily successful in engaging visitors. The Star Studio photo booth, My Snapshot, and Inspired by Matisse worked well because they were about the visitors and provided them with the ability of seeing themselves and/or their works represented within the organization. They also offered participants a platform to express their artistic creativity through (digital) drawing and photography. On the contrary, visitors find it more challenging when we ask them to express themselves in writing and to reflect upon more abstract concepts dealing with the themes of the exhibition or artists rather than themselves (e.g., According to Ai Weiwei, commenting on the blog or collection objects).

Even though visitors find it more difficult to engage in more intellectual forms of participation, this does not mean that the more creative participatory experiences are not useful in supporting learning about art. Participants’ feedback from the My Snapshot evaluation showed that the competition helped them draw parallels between themselves and the artists featured in the exhibition. It also enabled them to think about how photography had evolved over time, through the comparison between the present and the past examples. In the Inspired by Matisse evaluation, visitors reported being inspired by what they saw in the exhibition, as well as by the text, images, books, and video material about Matisse available in the Inspired by Matisse studio. This is evident in most submissions, which reflect patterns, compositions, colors, and shapes used by the French artist.

The two contests in particular were fairly successful in stimulating visitors’ creativity. Twelve percent of those who submitted photos to My Snapshot, for instance, chose to submit one that they took specifically for the competition. Some of these pictures were actually taken on the IMA campus. Several Inspired by Matisse participants reportedly came back to the studio multiple times during the course of the competition and submitted more drawings for a chance to win and be exhibited in the show, while others chose to submit more drawings off site using the online form.

These projects have not only stimulated repeat interactions, but they also appear to increase engagement with the institution and art in general. Visitors to the My Snapshot website, in fact, indicated in the evaluation that the competition stimulated their interest in visiting the exhibition (57 percent), in participating in photography related activities or events at the IMA (44 percent), and inspired them to learn more about photography (44 percent). Similarly, 66 percent of visitors to the Inspired by Matisse website declared their interest in visiting the exhibition in the future. While these are hypothetical questions and responses do not necessarily give a realistic picture of what happened, visitors expressing their intention to further engage with the institution is certainly a promising start.

Another valuable learning from these experiences is the confirmation that, even if not all visitors choose to participate in these projects, they still value contributions by others, as shown by the extremely positive feedback about the Inspired by Matisse submissions we received from exhibition visitors (see quotes in section 4). Interest in other people’s contributions also is exemplified by high visitation to the competition websites by people other than the participants, as well as voting and commenting, particularly for My Snapshot.

Issues of perception are also a key factor in determining the success of such projects. Particularly for institutions that are perceived as irrelevant to the community, actively soliciting engagement and contribution from visitors can make a significant impact on the health and vitality of the organization (Simon, 2010), as exemplified by this quote from one of our visitors about Inspired by Matisse: “Great idea! Most museum experiences are one-way—institution to patron. This provides interaction which adds to a patron’s feeling of ownership and/or participation.” This suggests that participatory experiences, when successful, help develop a positive attitude towards the museum as a more inclusive organization. Furthermore, audience members feel more personally included in the institution when they see people like themselves represented.

Besides having a positive impact on the local community, these projects have also contributed to expanding the reach of our institution. With the exception of the photo booth that does not have an online component, the other three projects reached a much wider audience at both the national and international levels compared to the corresponding exhibitions. This was true particularly for the My Snapshot photo contest. By commenting on their own or other people’s photos using the Facebook Connect feature, participants automatically attracted their Facebook friends to the website, thus bringing many national and international visitors and submissions.

On a more practical level, we have learned that simplicity is key for the success of these projects. Prototype tests conducted in the development stages have shown us the need to simplify the interaction and limit the features available as much as possible, particularly because visitors tend not to read instructions. The need for simplicity also stems from the importance of limiting the length of the interaction to avoid visitor flow issues, especially if these applications are integrated in exhibitions and the galleries.

One final lesson is that pre-moderation is not necessary for these participatory experiences. Visitors really enjoy seeing their image or works immediately displayed on the website or on site and have proven to be quite respectful of the institution and the context in which they are contributing. In all four projects, there have been only a handful of inappropriate submissions, which we were able to catch quickly in post-moderation and remove.

6.   Conclusions

Even though there is still some resistance internally, the success of these participatory projects has begun to help us sway some of the more traditional staff towards the idea of engaging visitors in different ways and providing platforms for them to express their voices and creativity. As a result, there is now an expectation on the part of senior management that we provide digital and/or analog participatory experiences in our exhibitions and permanent collection galleries moving forward.

In developing these new projects, we try as much as possible to repurpose equipment and infrastructure that we have previously used and build on ideas that have been successful, so that we can minimize costs and staff time. As mentioned above, we are currently in the process of developing Inspired by Nature, as well as a new version of the photo booth in Star Studio, both based on previously successful experiences. The idea of the photo booth will also be used in the upcoming Face to Face: the Neo-Impressionist Portrait exhibition (June 2014), where visitors will be able to make a self-portrait inspired by the Neo-Impressionist technique, using a photo they have taken with iPads installed in the galleries.

For The Essential Robert Indiana exhibition, which opens in February 2014, we have developed an iPad application that will encourage visitors to create self-portraits. Inspired by Indiana’s Autoportrait series, visitors will be able to design their own using numbers, words, and colors that are significant to them. Once created, visitors will be able to send their Autoportrait by e-mail. These will also be projected on screens in the gallery.

Our hope is that these new projects, like their predecessors, will continue to successfully engage our audiences, support learning about the themes of our exhibitions, improve the perception of our institution within the community, and eventually bring new and more diverse audiences to the museum.


Cameron, D. (1971). “The museum: A temple or a forum?” Curator, 14(1), 11-24.

Grabill, J. T., S. Pigg, & K. Wittenauer. (2009). “Take two: A study of the co-creation of knowledge on Museum 2.0 sites.” In J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds.), Museums and the Web 2009: Proceedings. Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. Published March 31.

Hooper-Greenhill, E. (1991). Museum and gallery education. Leicester, UK: Leicester University Press.

Simon, N. (2010). The participatory museum.

Weil, S. E. (1999). “From being about something to being for somebody.” Daedalus, 128(3), 229-258.

Cite as:
. "Participatory Experiences in Art Museums: Lessons from Two Years of Practice." MW2014: Museums and the Web 2014. Published February 7, 2014. Consulted .

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