Information-related behaviour as meaning-making processes: a study of science centre visitors
Mette Skov, and Marianne Lykke.
Introduction. This paper studies the science centre visitor experience from an information behaviour perspective. The study contributes to the area of casual-leisure information behaviour.
Method. The qualitative walk-along method rooted in ethnographic research was applied to study the in-situ visitor experience of forty-four families (seventy-four children and seventy adults) at a science centre in Denmark. An inductive content analysis approach was adopted focusing on three analytical themes.
Analysis.The concept of mediational means was used to analyse how the different exhibit features facilitate visitors’ meaning-making processes.
Results. Results from the study show how different exhibition features facilitate visitors’ information use and meaning-making processes in multiple ways providing rich opportunities for meaning-making. The results further illustrate, how visitors’ meaning-making processes become informed through a duality of cognitive and corporeal ways of knowing.
Conclusions. In the immersive and highly interactive exhibition, visitors mainly become informed about the importance of movement and health through corporeal information that is experienced through the situated body.
Museums and science centres are cultural heritage institutions and can be characterised as informal learning environments (Falk and Dierking, 2013). Where many visitors to libraries and archives enter with conscious information needs, visitors to museum and science centres, on the other hand, seldom enter with information needs or conscious knowledge gaps. According to Perry (2012), a museum visit is first and foremost a social experience. Falk (2011; Falk and Dierking, 2013) elaborates and describes five main motivations for museum visiting. The different motives indicate that the museum visit takes place in an intersection between entertainment and learning. Across the different motivations, however, the museum visitor is understood to be a crucial and active participant in the processes of meaning-making taking place as part of the visit (Falk and Dierking, 2013; Hooper-Greenhill, 1992; Mason, 2011).
Understanding the experience of museum and science centre visitors has been approached from multiple theoretical perspectives which include, but are not limited to, learning theory (Hein, 2006; Hooper-Greenhill, 1992), cultural theory (Mason, 2011), the visitor experience (Antón et al., 2018; Falk and Dierking, 2013; Kirchberg and Tröndle, 2012), and, following the advent of new technology in museum exhibitions, information technology studies (e.g., Hornecker and Stifter, 2006; Quistgaard and Kahr-Højland, 2010; Vermeeren et al., 2017). In this paper, we study the museum visitor experience from an information behaviour perspective. Museum information behaviour is not necessarily task oriented, but encompasses ‘…the totality of other unintentional or passive behaviors (such as glimpsing or encountering information), as well as purposive behaviors that do not involve seeking, such as actively avoiding information’ (Case, 2007, p. 5). Given visitors’ an active role in the museum experience, we argue that it is critical to understand the information-related behaviour taking place in museums and science centres. The aim is to inform both exhibition design in the physical museum and to inform criteria for the design of and content in online museum repositories and exhibitions.
Accordingly, this paper will explore the information-related behaviour of science centre visitors in a highly interactive exhibition on motion and health. As such, the study will contribute to the area of casual-leisure information behaviour. The paper focuses on the following overall research question and two sub-questions:
- What characterises the information-related behaviour of science centre visitors engaged in highly interactive and immersive exhibitions?
- How do the different exhibition features facilitate visitors’ information use and meaning-making processes?
- What characterises science centre visitors’ meaning-making processes?
In line with Falk and Dierking (2013), this paper uses the term museum as a collective term encompassing different types of museums, science centres, zoos, etc.
Information behaviour of museum and science centre visitors
The museum or science centre visit is most commonly a casual-leisure activity ‘possessing elements of the educative and possibilities for the re-creations of individuals, as well as the development of communities’ (Foley and McPherson, 2000, p. 161). Despite this, earlier studies related to information behaviour of museum and science centre visitors have mainly focused on experts and museum professionals (e.g., Marty, 2006; Skov and Ingwersen, 2014). One reason might be that research in information behaviour of general museum visitors does not easily reveal intentional or goal-oriented actions. Recently, however, interesting approaches to explore information in museum contexts have emerged. A study by Latham, et al., (2019) examined the relationship between inspiration and information, and Marengo and Fazekas (2018) used inquiry techniques to surface curiosities people have for paintings in the context of leisure-based explorations. Both examples are interesting because they move beyond the idea of the museum visitor as a needy individual (Olsson, 2006).
As more and more museum collections have been digitised and made available on museum websites, several studies aim to characterise digital cultural heritage users’ information behaviour. Again, focus has been on user groups that are easy to access, such as experts, researchers, and museum staff (Walsh et al., 2018). In Walsh et al.’s (2018) survey study of online museum users, they succeed in reaching the main user groups including the general public and non-professional, which is critical since transaction log data from the case museum indicate that ‘…approximately 60% of users leave within 10s’. These high bounce rates indicates that even though we see research in developing novel user interfaces to museum websites and cultural heritage collections (e.g., Whitelaw, 2015), more knowledge of the information-related behaviour of the general museum visitor is needed to inform the design solutions.
As explained in the introduction, the driving motivation behind this paper is to explore the information-related behaviour as meaning-making processes, which will be further elaborated in the next section.
Information behaviour as meaning-making processes
The concept of meaning-making is central to descriptions of learning in informal environments, and in museum research:
learning is often discussed in terms of meaning making, focusing not only on the acquisition of factual knowledge, but also, importantly, on the diverse and personal ways in which visitors’ prior knowledge and experiences are divulged, shared, and reinforced during a museum visit and in interaction with authentic objects (Leinhardt and Knutson, 2004, p. 6).
From the quote, it is clear that the visitor is understood to be an active participant in the process of meaning-making, and not just a receiver of information. In the present study we see information-related behaviour as an integrated part of visitors’ meaning-making processes, including how they interpret both cognitive and corporeal information to give it personal significance. Insight into visitors’ meaning-making processes is gained both by listening to their conversations and by observing their interactions with exhibit features (this is elaborated in the section on methods). We are aware that the related concept, sense-making, has commonly been preferred over meaning-making in information behaviour studies. Dervin has written extensively about sense-making and explains how we experience a need to make sense of the world, and this need ‘implies a state that arises within a person, suggesting some kind of gap that requires filling’ (Dervin, 1983, p. 156). The concept of meaning-making is preferred in the present study, however, as visitors to science centres rarely enter with an information need or some kind of gap that requires filling. Similar characteristics of poorly defined or even absent information needs have earlier been identified in casual-leisure scenarios (Elsweiler et al., 2011).
Inspired by the socio-cultural approach to learning in science centres presented by Davidsson and Jakobsson (2012), the concept of mediational means is applied to identify and analyse visitor interactions in authentic situations. Mediational means can be defined as all possible or accessible resources in a learning process (Wertsch, 1997). Further, Wertsch emphasises the dialectical relationship between artefacts and the human mind, and describes the relationship between humans and their mediational means as a unit of irreducible tension where actions reveal meaning in a wider and deeper perspective. The present study applies the concept of mediational means to explore the ways in which the exhibit features have an impact on visitors’ interactions and meaning-making processes. Different levels of meaning-making have been defined in earlier studies of science centre visitors (e.g., Leinhardt and Knutson, 2004). In the inductive analysis (see section on methods), the following five levels of meaning-making were identified: describe, apply, relate, reflect, and question.
The duality of cognitive and corporeal ways of knowing in information behaviour
This section on the duality of cognitive and corporeal, or embodied, ways of knowing is included because the context of the study is the highly interactive Pulse exhibition aiming to engage visitors in collaborative, physical activities. Our dual attention towards both cognitive and corporeal ways of knowing is also in resonance with seeing exhibit features as mediational means and therefore as resources in visitors’ meaning-making processes.
Accordingly, we find it relevant to include this section on the role of embodiment, which according to Lloyd (2010) has been understudied in information practice studies. Lloyd points to how research rarely addresses the experience of how the body impacts our understanding of information or how the body is used to take in information through sensory inputs. Likewise, even though Dervin describes sense-making as embodied in materiality (1999, p. 730) and undertaken by an embodied human, the concept of sense-making in information behaviour studies has mainly been associated with cognitive activities (Godbold, 2014). Also, Cox, et al. (2017) argue that studies of information behaviour ‘have tended to ignore embodied information’ (2017, p. 399). Exceptions include a small group of studies (e.g., Cox et al., 2017; Godbold, 2014; Lloyd, 2009; Lloyd and Olsson, 2019; Ocepek, 2018) pointing to our attention to embodiment and embodied knowing from an information perspective. The studies cover a range of domains including serious leisure in the form of running and reading (Cox et al., 2017), shopping (Ocepek, 2018), and car restoring (Lloyd and Olsson, 2019), all stressing the importance of understanding the study context. It is beyond the scope of this paper to review what can be called a beginning turn towards the body in information practice and behaviour studies, but we will briefly outline the theory informing the present study.
Like the aforementioned studies, we reject the Cartesian dualism which decouples the mind and body. In order to understand how information is used, it is important to consider the experience of the body’s senses and the body’s integral role in information behaviour. In order to understand the science centre visitor’s experience, we build on Dewey’s argument for the inclusion of the body as central to learning processes, and the dual nature of experience in learning and in learning from experience (Dewey, 1938). Further, we apply Lloyd’s understanding of corporeal information as ‘information that is experienced through the situated and sensory body as it interacts with material objects, artefacts and other people that inhabit the same landscape’ (2010, paragraph 2).
Finally, Cox, et al. (2017) point to the inadequacy of the methods usually deployed in information behaviour studies, such as questionnaires and interviews, when exploring embodied information practice. Instead, they suggest applying ethnographic methods, which the present study has done by use of the walk-along method (Kusenbach, 2003). The methodological approach will be further explained in the next section.
The case study was conducted at the Pulse exhibition at the Experimentarium Science Center in Copenhagen, Denmark. Aiming at promoting health and motion in everyday life, the Pulse exhibition is designed to show how everyday family activities can be fun exercises by actively engaging visitors and facilitating reflection and discussion on the importance and joy of physical activity. Based on the overall design principles of collaboration, dialogue, participation, positive health perspective, and entertainment, the highly interactive exhibition aims at providing an engaging visitor experience. The eight exhibits in the Pulse exhibition represent traditional parts of a family home and well-known activities such as biking in the bike shed, cleaning the bathroom, playing the floor is poisonous in the kitchen, watching television in the living room, etc. In this way, familiar activities are used as schemas for visitors’ interaction with the exhibits. Forming a square, the eight exhibits are clustered around a combined check-in and information point in the middle. For a video presentation of the exhibition, see Experimentarium (2020).
As described above, the concept of mediational means is used to analyse how the different exhibit features facilitate visitors’ meaning-making. This study focuses on four types of mediational means identified in the Pulse exhibition:
- instruction labels presented as part of the check-in procedure in front of each exhibit and at wall screens,
- open-ended question labels presented at signs on the walls,
- an interactive quiz at the information point about the biological phenomena of interest (balance, heart rate, calories, kilojoules, etc.), and
- the physical exhibit and activity.
Table 1 presents text examples for mediational means 1-3, and Figure 1 shows two examples of physical exhibits.
|Mediational Mean||The Bike Shed exhibit|
|Open-ended question label||Do you get your heart rate up every day?|
You will raise your heart rate by cycling fast to the beach.
Afterwards, you will experience relaxation and see how your heart rate returns to normal.
Who will do best?
Press ‘start’ and prepare to bike!
Hold tightly on the handlebars - they measure your heart rate.
The faster your heart rate returns to normal, the more fit you are.
Who is in best shape?
How do you know whether you are in good physical shape?
1. Your heart rate raises quickly when you work?
2. Your heart rate is very high, when you work the most?
3. Your heart rate returns quickly to normal after exercise?
Answer: If you are in good physical shape then your heart rate will quickly return to normal when you relax after exercise. So the more you exercise, the better you get at relaxing.
Using the walk-along method for data collection
There are several interesting examples of using ethnographic research methods in museum studies (see for example Macdonald, 2002). In the present study data collection was carried out using the qualitative walk-along method rooted in ethnographic research. The method was originally developed in urban geography, but has been applied in a variety of studies such as those examining urban neighbourhoods, exploring the journey of migration, the implications of place for health, and visitor experiences interacting with sound art installations (Lykke and Jantzen, 2013).
Walk-alongs can be seen as a hybrid of participant observations and qualitative interviews (Kusenbach, 2003). What makes the walk-along method unique, and highly relevant in visitor studies, is that the researcher can ‘observe their informants’ spatial practices in situ while accessing their experiences and interpretations at the same time’ (Kusenbach, 2003, p. 463).
Following the quote, a main strength of the walk-along method is that the researcher can capture participants’ immediate experiences, interpretations and emotions in the instant of experiencing. However, the participation of a researcher inevitably influence the situation being studied and according to Kusenbach (2003) walk-alongs must be regarded as contrived social situations. Therefore, a limitation to the walk-along is that the presence of the researcher can disturb and influence the visitor experience. For example, increase visitors’ engagement with and time in an exhibition (Lykke and Jantzen, 2013). See Skov, et al. (2018) for an elaborated discussion on the use of the walk-along method for studying visitor experiences in a science centre setting.
A total of forty-four walk-alongs were carried out by the two authors together with two research assistants during summer 2018. Participants were recruited as they entered one of the two entrances of the Pulse exhibition. Working independently, the researchers contacted the family groups and if the visitors agreed to participate, the researcher introduced the study and the visitors immediately started exploring the exhibition. Some walk-alongs took place with only one active researcher in the exhibition area while other walk-alongs were carried out in parallels of two.
During a walk-along, the researcher followed the group of visitors while listening to their dialogues and observing their actions. The situation was studied as it unfolded, and visitors decided the route and pace through the exhibition. When relevant, the participants were prompted to verbally express or comment on their experiences. In this way, walking-along with participants provided access to unfolding visitor experiences by asking questions in situ. In the beginning of the walk-along, visitors were told that they decided the length of the session and were free to decide their own route and pace through the exhibition. Some visitors explored all eight exhibits, while others only a few. The duration of the 44 walk-alongs therefore ranged between 8 and 57 minutes, with a mean of 35 minutes. The walk-alongs were audio-recorded using cordless microphones. A written consent letter describing the research project and the walk-along method was signed by each group.
All walk-alongs were followed up with an interview immediately after visitors chose to end their visit to the Pulse exhibition and before they moved on to another exhibition. The follow-up interviews took place in a quiet room near the Pulse exhibition. The follow-up interviews provided elaborated information on participants’ interaction and use of exhibit features. The follow-up interviews were also audio-recorded. The duration of the follow-up interviews ranged between 6 to 21 minutes, with an average of 12 minutes. After finishing the interviews, participants were offered a small incentive as thanks for their participation in the study.
The study included forty-four group walk-alongs composed of 144 participants (seventy-four children and seventy adults). Study participants were recruited to reflect the Pulse exhibition’s main target group of families with children between 6 and 12 years. Accordingly, all groups included at least one child (between 5 and 12 years) and one adult that were family related. The composition of the groups varied and included single parents and nuclear parents visiting with their children, inter-generational groups with grandparents and grandchildren, etc. The walk-along sessions were conducted in Danish and all participants were native Danish speakers. Quotes included in the results section are translated into English by the authors.
An inductive content analysis approach was adopted using the NVIVO analytical software to code and analyse the qualitative data (Bryman, 2012). Each walk-along was represented with three types of documentation in the NVIVO analysis: 1) researcher’s field notes written immediately after each walk-along session, 2) summary and partial transcripts of the walk-along, and 3) a full transcript of the follow-up interview. The coding scheme was developed through an iterative process and informed by both theory and the dataset. The coding scheme included three main analytical themes. The first theme addressed how visitors used and interacted with mediational means identified in the Pulse exhibition. The concepts included in the second theme (everyday activities, bodily reaction, physical exercise etc.) were generated from the data. The concepts in the third analytical theme were derived from theory describing levels of meaning-making (Leinhardt and Knutson, 2004). The finale coding scheme included the following three main analytical themes and concepts:
1) visitors’ use of and interaction with mediational means (instruction labels, open-ended question labels, quiz, and physical exhibit),
2) topics in meaning-making (everyday activities, bodily reaction, physical exercise, health, scientific concepts, and school), and
3) levels of meaning-making (describe, apply, relate, reflect, and question).
Building on a qualitative approach, the frequency distribution of the codes was not calculated. Instead, the following result section will provide insights into the themes emerging from the rich data set on visitors’ dialogue and interactions with exhibits.
Results from the study are presented in two subsections, each exploring and answering a research question.
How exhibit features facilitate visitors’ information use and meaning-making processes
The first part of the result section presents an analysis of the Pulse exhibition’s four mediational means’ potential to facilitate science centre visitors’ meaning-making processes.
First, the instruction labels were used by all participating family groups, as these labels were presented as an integrated part of check-in procedure in front of each exhibit and at wall screens. However, it varied across groups to what extent the information included in the instruction labels was fully read and whether it was read aloud or discussed. The analysis showed that the instruction labels’ main function in regard to visitors’ meaning-making processes was to facilitate that visitors could describe and apply. In many cases, adults read instruction labels aloud to describe the activity or formulate very brief explanations in their own words: ‘Here you can see how much energy you produce, right?...It says 47 kilojoules…’ (mother in walk-along 7). In other cases, visitors used information from the instruction labels to describe more elaborately what an exhibit is about and what is going on. This is an example from the Energy Roller exhibit (walk-along 8) where the adults use information from the instructional labels to describe what the exhibit is about:
Grandmother: This is sort of a wheel, and then you can buy food, Michael. There are croissants.
Mother: And tomatoes and cucumbers.
Son, age 6: Can we buy something now?
Grandmother: No, you haven’t reached enough calories.
Grandmother: We reached 75 [calories].
Mother: And an average woman needs 11,000 kilojoules per day.
Grandmother: Wow, Michael, 11,000?
Son, age 6: 11,000 what? Kilojoules?
Grandmother: So much work for one cucumber.
Even though instruction labels mainly facilitated that visitors could describe an activity, some of the instruction labels also helped visitors apply information. The following example is from the Jumping Fence exhibit where instructions on a wall screen helped the group apply the instructional information:
The daughter (age 5) and mother (walk-along 22) visit the Jumping Fence exhibit, where an instructional video on a wall screen instructs them on how to improve their jumping technique. In between jumps, they watch a video replay a recording of their own jump.
Mother: It says that we both jumped 8 cm. You did well. Look!
[They both laugh when they watch the re-play of their jump.]
Mother: Good. Now they show some tricks explaining how we can jump even higher. [Reading instructions aloud] Bend in the legs and tighten all the leg muscles. Yes, like that. Just like you usually do. And swing your arms upward as you straighten your legs. Ok, and then you have to tighten your legs and use the muscles that sit here on the back. Are you ready for the second jump?
[They try the Jumping Fence exhibit a second time]
Mother: What a difference!
Daughter: How high did you jump?
[The mother improved her jump, but Hannah did not, so they decide to try one more time].
Mother: Let’s practice. Down to your knees, then swing upwards. This is something you are good at. You love to jump.
Mother: Oh Hannah, it's the highest you've ever jumped. 21 cm - nice. Try to see how high you got up. It looks cool.
The example shows how the video instructions successfully made visitors apply instructions.
The second type of mediational mean is the open-ended question labels. Earlier studies show how open-ended question labels are included in exhibition design to facilitate dialogue and discussion (e.g., Hohenstein and Tran, 2007; Serrell, 2015). Indeed, the analysis shows that the dialogue labels facilitated a broader range of meaning-making processes than instruction labels. Like instruction labels, dialogue labels can also facilitate visitors’ descriptions of what an exhibit is about: ‘Is this about balance?’ (walk-along 2) or ‘Let’s try and see whether we are good at coordinating’ (walk-along 31). However, the follow-up interviews provided many examples of how open-ended question labels further facilitated that visitors reflected on and related the ongoing activity to aspects related to the exhibition theme (health and physical exercise) and to everyday activities. This is exemplified in excerpt from the follow-up interview (walk-along 15) with a grandmother (age 72) and a grandchild (age 9) where they discuss the open-ended question label asking Are you flexible enough:
Interviewer: The text says: Are you flexible enough? Did you notice that question?
Girl: No, I didn’t see it.
Interviewer: Okay. What about you?
Grandmother: Well, maybe it’s because I’m older… I don’t think that I exercise enough in my everyday life, and I was aware of that. So I got happy!
Interviewer: Did you read the question before you tried the exhibit?
Grandmother: Yes, I did. And then I thought, no – I’m not flexible enough. But it went well.
Interviewer: Yes, indeed.
Grandmother: So it [the question] motivated me.
Interviewer: It motivated you?
Grandmother: Yes, very much. When you answer no in advance, and I do know that you are supposed to answer yes, then it’s highly motivating.
The above example shows how the open-ended question made the grandmother reflect on her physical fitness in a positive way and also relate to her everyday life. The second part of the result section will outline the different topics identified in visitors’ meaning-making processes.
The third type of mediational mean is the interactive quiz. Only sixteen of the forty-four family groups participating in the walk-alongs tried the interactive quiz at the information point. The interactive quiz included information on and questions about the biological phenomena of interest without use of technical or scientific language (see example in Table 1). Some families answered just a single question whereas other families answered questions related to each of the exhibits they had tried. Overall, the interactive quiz questions made visitors describe and reflect on the activities. This is an example of a mother and son (age 6) discuss how to train your balance (walk-along 17).
Mother: Are you ready for a question? What is the most difficult, and thus the best exercise to train your balance? Is it 1) standing on one leg with eyes closed, 2) repeatedly looking first right and then left, or 3) keeping both arms out to the sides? I think ... No, what do you think?
Son: Hmm, three?
Mother: To keep both arms out to the sides?
Son: Yes, because then you can easier keep the balance.
Mother: Yes, but now stand on one leg with your eyes closed. Try it. Is it difficult?
Mother: The question is what is the most difficult and thus the best exercise when we need to work out balance.
Son: That one.
Mother: Yeah, try to push it.
The example also illustrates how the son became informed through bodily knowledge. The interactive quiz, on the other hand, rarely make visitors reflect on the biological phenomena at a more abstract level.
The fourth type of mediational mean is the physical exhibit and activity. The in-situ walk-alongs provided first-hand insights into visitors’ interactions with the physical exhibits. Through interacting with exhibits, visitors actively apply the information given to complete a specific task. For example, ‘How can I make the Energy Roller spin?’ Or, ‘How can I jump even higher?’
Equally important, visitors’ interactions with the physical exhibits results in corporeal ways of knowing. That is, the body takes in information through sensory inputs in the form of, for example, the feeling of tired legs trying to take quicker steps to get the Energy Roller to spin. Through cognitive information, visitors can read instructional information about how many calories a tomato contains. However, through bodily interaction with the Energy Roller exhibit, the visitors respond physiologically to the exhibit and experience the physiological effort demanded to burn calories equivalent to a tomato. By following the groups through the exhibition, we observed how visitors’ bodily interactions, especially with the physically challenging exhibits, made them reflect about their personal health and whether they are physically active enough in their everyday life. For example, in walk-along 28, a family visits the Bike Shed exhibit and the interaction with the exhibit prompts reflections:
The family (mother, father, and son age 10) does not talk much while biking, but they are clearly out of breath when they reach the finish line. Censors in the bike handles measure how their heart rates slowly decrease while they start to relax:
Father: Phew! Hold on to the handles, Will. This is hard, don’t you think, Will? Remember to hold tight.
Will: I sweat like a madman.
Father: It’s ok. Look, we are pretty close [observing on a wall screen how their heart rates fall].
Father: I won!
Mother: Yes, you reached the beach [the finish line] first.
Father: Yes, I just wanted to relax.
Mother: I could really use some cold water.
Father: [To the interviewer] I’m the only smoker in the family. Luckily, Will has not started smoking yet.
Will: I never will.
Father: It might explain why my fitness it very poor…
Summing up, it is important to notice that across the forty-four walk-alongs, none of the visitors entered the Pulse exhibition with a conscious information need. Instead, visitors entered the exhibition with a desire to play, learn, and experience. Based on the mediational potential of the four types of exhibit features, a key finding in this study is that science centre visitors’ meaning-making processes are informed both by bodily engagement with exhibits and cognitive information.
What characterises science centre visitors’ meaning-making processes?
Whereas the previous result section shows how the different exhibit features facilitate visitors’ meaning-making processes, this section explores the topics in meaning-making processes. Or in other words, how do visitors interpret experiences to give them personal significance?
The major theme in visitors’ meaning-making dialogues in the Pulse exhibition and in the follow-up interviews is clearly everyday activities. Especially the adults make connections to prior experiences related to everyday activities to help contextualise the activities. Here the design strategy of using familiar activities as schemas for visitors’ interaction with the exhibits clearly helps the families find personal meaning in the exhibits. They talk about playing football at home, going by bike to school instead of by car, playing too much iPad. Similar to findings by Gilbert and Stocklmayer (2001), the analysis shows how some visitors construct meaning for the experience with help of reminders derived from everyday life, e.g., their shared memory of a trip to the beach.
Health and physical exercise are two other important themes in visitors’ meaning-making processes which is not surprising given the aim of the Pulse exhibition. About half of the participating groups make mainly short comments or reflections on (their personal) health and/or physical exercise: ‘We are going to a triathlon soon. It's about time we need to get in shape, right?’ (mum age 47, walk-along 21), ‘I don’t get my heart rate up every day. Running, that’s not for me. Or rather, I can’t because of my back’ (grandmother age 72, WA15), and ‘There are really a lot of calories in this one [a snickers bar] compared to a carrot, but you can also go much longer, so it doesn’t always have to do with calories’ (boy age 13, walk-along 2).
Despite the many examples of how visitors relate to health and physical exercise when interacting with exhibits, the analysis show how embodied knowing is visitors’ main source of information. In the Pulse exhibition, visitors mainly become informed about the importance of movement and health through corporeal information that is experienced through the situated and sensory body (Lloyd, 2010). The central role of the body was both observed during walk-alongs and in visitors’ dialogue. Observations revealed how visitors’ bodies reacted to especially the physically demanding exhibits. We observed how visitors struggled and put in an effort into reaching the finish line or making the Energy Roller spin. Some became out of breath or started sweating. Others took off their jackets. For example, a 9 year old girl says to her father: ‘Feel my hands’ (walk-along 29), and they both laugh about her sweaty hands. In walk-along 21, the mother gasps for breath when biking in the Bike Shed exhibit which results in a talk about getting back into shape. The examples illustrate the duality of corporeal and cognitive knowledge, and between doing and undergoing. Based on these observations, it is clear that visitors’ bodies play a vital role in their information behaviour because interaction with the physical exhibits provide corporeal information.
In sharp contrast to the importance of corporeal knowledge, the walk-alongs also showed how asking questions about scientific concepts or reflections related to school was scarce.
Discussion and conclusion
The comparison between museums and theatres (Mitchell, 2013) highlights how museum exhibitions are most often designed by curators awaiting to be explored. This implies that many museum visitors enter the museum with an open mind eager to explore, learn, and be entertained (Falk and Dierking, 2013), but with no conscious information needs. This is also the case in the present study. At the same time, most museums and science centres view visitors as active learners or explores constructing their own meaning. In such a constructivist approach to museum learning and exhibition design, the goal is to facilitate visitors’ opportunities to reach their own understandings (Hein, 2006). This paper argues that it is relevant to take an information behaviour perspective to understand the museum visitor experience. Improved knowledge of the information-related visitor behaviour can inform exhibit design in both brick-and-mortar museums and on online platforms.
The overall research question was: What characterises the information-related behaviour of science centre visitors engaged in highly interactive and immersive exhibitions? To answer this question, we used the ethnographic walk-along method (Kusenbach, 2003) to get rich, in-situ insights into visitor experiences when interacting with the Pulse exhibition.
The results from the study show that the different exhibition features facilitate visitors’ information use and meaning-making processes in multiple ways. The analysis applied five levels of meaning-making. The instruction labels’ main function was to facilitate that visitors could describe and apply information about the activity at hand. In addition, the open-ended question labels prompted visitors to reflect and relate the ongoing activities to aspects related to the exhibition theme and everyday activities. The interactive quiz questions made visitors describe and reflect on the activities. Finally, the physical exhibit and activities, first and foremost made visitors actively apply information through interactions with exhibits but they also made visitors reflect. Summing up, the four types of mediational means provide rich opportunities for meaning-making and facilitate that visitors can describe the activity (what is going on), apply information to carry out the task, and reflect and relate the information to mainly everyday activities and personal health or physical exercise themes. Only rarely, the mediational means prompted visitors to ask specific questions about the exhibition content or theme. One may say that even though no conscious information needs were identified, visitors are explorers of both the information provided in the exhibition but also explorers of how to make the exhibition personally relevant. The results further illustrate, how visitors’ meaning-making processes become informed through a duality of cognitive and corporeal ways of knowing. Accordingly, our study adds to earlier studies (Godbold, 2014; Lloyd, 2010; Lloyd and Olsson, 2019; Ocepek, 2018) stressing the importance of acknowledging embodied information in information behaviour.
At the same time, the present study shows the potential of using the walk-along method to enrich our understanding of user experience with information technology including mobile information interaction, everyday life information seeking, use of wearable technologies etc. The explosion in use of mobile devices on the go calls for mobile methods enabling new forms of inquiry and explanation involving how multiple technologies and ways of communication are strongly interrelated with all social life.
Looking forward, the results from this study can inform exhibition design in the physical museum. Detailed knowledge about the different exhibit features’ mediational potential, can help scaffold information to best facilitate meaning-making processes of a diverse range of visitors (Davidsson and Jakobsson, 2012). Additionally, the results can inform the design of online museum exhibitions and potentially help reduce high bounce rates (Walsh et al., 2018). For instance, knowledge of visitors’ meaning-making topics could give personal meaning and significance to a virtual after-visit, and help visitors apply knowledge to an everyday life setting.
We would like to thank the Experimentarium (Copenhagen) for its interest in and collaboration on this research project, including its granting ability to carry out visitor studies in the Pulse exhibition. A special thank you is due to program manager and exhibition developer at Experimentarium, Mette Stentoft Therkildsen, for providing background knowledge and fruitful discussions. Also, a thank you is due to Louise Bak Søndergaard and Stine Have, research assistants at Aalborg University, for their help with data collection.
About the authors
Mette Skov is Associate Professor at the Department of Communication and Psychology at the University of Aalborg, Denmark. She received her Ph.D. from the Royal School of Library and Information Science in Copenhagen, Denmark. Her research interests include information behaviour and practice, user experience design, and museum visitor studies. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Marianne Lykke is Professor at the Department of Communication and Psychology, Denmark. She holds a PhD from Åbo Academy in Finland. Her research is focused on user practice studies and user-centered methods to the design and evaluation of information and experience design. She is particularly interested in information design in work-place environments and experience design in museum settings. She can be contacted at email@example.com.
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