Can a museum object be more like a dog?

About a month ago I visited the Adam Lister art gallery. In one art exhibit, an artist had placed a gumball machine filled with what he called “tiny art”. The machine had a sign that encouraged people to play, by inputting one dollar and turning the knob. Puzzled, I scrambled for quarters to feed that gumball machine and find my prize. In return, I received a small plastic shelled ball – similar to the toy-filled shells in arcade gumball machines. Instead of a toy, the plastic ball held a piece of tiny art, created by one of the local artists in the community.  An art gallery has a different goal than a museum, but still, I thought we could re-use that idea. Can an exhibit encourage participation? From that moment on, I decided to learn more about the concept of a participatory exhibit or museum.

A piece of tiny art is hidden inside its receptacle. Photo by the author.

Participatory museum

The participatory museum is a concept advocated by Nina Simon. At the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History, she designs interactive exhibits that offer visitors a chance to create art. For example, the museum houses a table display with empty mason jars, paper, and pen, which invites visitors to share a memory. This idea is analogous to a “message in a bottle”. So far, visitors have already shared thousands of memories in jars, which go on display in a museum wall, side by side with the museum’s art collection. Some powerful, emotional memories have been stored (such as a mother’s note to her deceased son in Iraq). One take home message here is: art is no longer something you simply stare at.

I interviewed museum specialist Laura DiSciullo, who offered one such example of participation: “interaction may involve strangers interacting, or visitors interacting with past and future visitors by leaving a comment. There were times when I was the only visitor in an exhibit, but the experience was still interactive in that I could see what previous visitors had contributed, and leave my own contribution.”

In addition, she mentions exhibits that  “have elements geared toward intergenerational learning, esp. a family of visitors interacting. Not only are the adults helping the children learn (and perhaps vise versa), but it is also a social, bonding experience for the family.”

Social Objects

In her TED talk last November, Nina Simon states that “museum objects should be more like dogs”. Dog owners out there might understand what she means: you are outside walking your dog and are approached by friendly strangers who ask to pet him. Nina Simon sees museum artifacts as social objects. Like a dog, a museum object offers an excuse for strangers to have a conversation. Specifically, they are a “safe social object that mediates an encounter that otherwise wouldn’t have happened”. Dogs and social museum objects are opportunities for conversation; they mediate conversation between strangers.

Teens discuss the stacks of money demonstrating income disparities among different races. Photo by Terry Gydesen at The Participatory Museum.

In her book, Nina Simon invites us to “imagine looking at an object not for its artistic or historical significance but for its ability to spark conversation”. This is how she defines the concept of social object. One social object example comes from a Santa Cruz museum exhibit that shows the income disparities between white and black populations in the exhibit Race: Are We So Different? A group of teenagers stares in shock at two piles of dollar bills, with wildly different heights. For Ms. Simon, the exhibit is mediating a serious conversation (income disparity) between a group of strangers (teenagers and other museum visitors), that might not have happened otherwise. Another powerful example of social objects is the wrecked car displayed at the Jeremy Deller: It is what it is: Conversations about Iraq exhibit, which prompts visitors and an invited expert (a veteran, journalist, or scholar) to debate.

A wrecked car after an explosion in Baghdad. This social object sparks conversation at Jeremy Deller: It Is What It Is: Conversations About Iraq at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. Photography © Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago by photographer, Analu Maria Lopez.

Bringing social objects to science museums

Science museums already offer opportunities for visitors to participate, mostly via interactive exhibits. But how do we bring debate, especially one that continues after a visitor leaves the museum?

Many science topics would benefit from serious discussion. Evolution, climate change, human origins, or vaccination (considering the current “antivax” climate) are a few that come to mind. How can science museums use social objects to help foster debate?

The Hall of Human Origins, at the National Museum of Natural History, emphasizes the evolutionary relationships between early humans and anatomically modern human. The hall welcomes visitors with a provocative message: “what does it mean to be human?”. It lines up reconstructions of early humans (such as Australopithecine and Neanderthals) that culminate with an impressive wall of skulls. Standing in front of that wall, one can join conversation that is invariably going on: some children are terrified, other are curious. I saw it for the first time when I was there with my sister, who is an MD. She unconsciously switched to doctor mode and starting point out to causes of death based on what she saw on skulls. “Here’s a brow fracture; this guy suffered a blow to the head”, or “that poor guy must have had a massive toothache.”

The hall also offers a lecture series called HOT – short for Human Origin Topics – that focus on controversial science and philosophical questions (e.g., evolution or religion). But perhaps the most popular object in the hall – and a great example of a social object – is the MEanderthal photo booth. Visitors line up to take their photo, which will be morphed into a Neanderthal version of themselves. Long lines form in this particular object, and people interact while waiting in line.  Laura DiSciullo told me that MEanderthal is “a fun conversation piece for friends and families, or perhaps strangers waiting in what can be a long line for this popular feature.”

Giant drill at the Perot Museum of Science and Nature. Photo by Lara Solt at Dallas News.

Other science-based institutions offer social objetcs and exhibits. The National Zoo has a pizza playground, with the goal of teaching children where their food comes from (pepperoni does not sprout from the ground). The Perot Museum of Nature and Science displays a giant drill in their energy hall that – and if this seems controversial it’s because it is – that illustrates hydro fracking. DiSciullo also reminds me of “the world population counter [at the Hall of Human Origins] that continually increases, and the large display saying how much of our DNA we share with other species (including bananas).”

How can science museums become more social?

The process starts during exhibit design. DiSciullo explains that, during design, educators advocate for learning outcomes. One example, used by some museums, is the GLO, or Generic Learning Outcomes: “ [GLO] describe all the types of learning that can take place – learning facts is one possible goal for visitors, but not the only one.” In addition to learning, museum educators also encourage other outcomes, such as “helping visitors make connections between things they already know, or express themselves creatively, or make a positive behavior change based on what they’ve learned.” We’ve all seen programs like the one at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch, where visitors receive card to instruct them on sustainable and health decisions.

Nina Simon urges museums to answer the following questions: “how do you want visitors to learn from or interact with each other? Do you want to promote dialogue…? Do you want to promote group collaboration? Do you want visitors to respond to each other, to help each other, to create things together?” With those goals in mind, museums aim for a learning outcome of social interaction.  As museum consultant Darcie Fohrman reports to Simon, “In the museum field, we know that learning happens when there is discussion and conversation. We want people to ask strange questions and say, ‘I don’t get this.”

Author: Mike Klymkowsky

A professor of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology at the University of Colorado Boulder ( I have long standing research interests in phage biology, molecular structure, cytoskeletal and regulatory (signaling) systems, and the improvement of science (biology and chemistry) courses, curricula, and outcomes (see

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