Accessibility and Inclusive PracticeMulti-sensory

Participatory Exhibition Design: The Case of the Indianapolis Museum of Art ~ Silvia Filippini-Fantoni

In response to the ongoing technological revolution, as well as the increasing competition from other leisure time activities, the Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA) has recently undertaken a significant shift toward becoming a more visitor-centric institution. Key to this approach is the implementation of a more collaborative and participatory exhibition development process. This new process has the objective of ensuring that:

  • exhibitions are accessible to visitors, including those who have little or no knowledge of art;
  • a deeper engagement with artworks and the institution is supported;
  • repeat visitation, high visitor satisfaction and the development of new audiences are guaranteed.

Characteristics of the new exhibition development process

Until about two and a half years ago, exhibition development at the IMA was very much an individual process, centered on the curator, who would come up with the idea, select the objects, create the content, and decide the layout (fig 1). Only at later stages would the curator work with designers and interpretation specialists on aspects related to layout and learning.










Fig 1 and 2:  The old vs. the new exhibition development models
Since March 2013 a new collaborative process has been implemented. This process is characterized by:

  • The development of a core team: Rather than by the individual curator, the new process is managed by an exhibition team (called “core team”). This includes a curator, an interpretation specialist, an evaluator, a designer, and an exhibition manager, who meet regularly to make all relevant decisions (fig. 2). The team convenes in the early stages of the process, when the idea is still in its infancy.
  • The creation of a big-idea document: The core team works as a group to identify the exhibition’s main thesis and key messages (big-idea). These are then used to develop an interpretive plan, which maps the identified outcomes with the various interpretive tools, to create the gallery design and layout and to finalize the artwork list, thus ensuring that the many elements of the exhibition are strategically chosen, cohesive, and well-integrated.
  • Incorporating testing and evaluation: Another key aspect of the new model is evaluation, which is carried out at different stages of the process. Feedback is collected from visitors and non-visitors to test the initial concept for the exhibition, refine the big idea and learning outcomes, and gauge people’s preference for marketing material. Concepts for hands-on and participatory activities are also tested, along with prototypes, wireframes, and designs, to guarantee that the final product is easy to use.

Benefits of the New Exhibition Development Process

The implementation of this process, which has been applied to eight past exhibitions, with five others currently in development, has already resulted in a number of positive outcomes. These include:

  • Higher exhibition attendance: In 2013 before the new process was implemented, we had 44,000 visitors to our temporary exhibitions vs. 81,000 in 2014 and over 92,000 in 2015.
  • Higher visitor satisfaction levels: Visitors’ satisfaction with the exhibition experience has also increased going from a range of 4.49 to 4.62 out of 5 for exhibitions developed with the old model, to a range of 4.67 to 4.82 out of 5 for exhibitions developed using the new model (fig. 3).Indianapolis-Fig3-Updated



Fig 3: Graph showing the increase in guests’ satisfaction with exhibitions developed using the old vs. the new models.

  • Better integration of interpretive tools: Not only has the number of interpretive tools increased, but they are also easier to use and better integrated into the exhibition, thus resulting in high take-up rates. For the Face to Face: The Neo-Impressionist Portrait 18861904exhibition (June–September 2014), for example, we developed an app which allowed visitors to take a “selfie” and turn it into a pointillist painting. The app was used by over 60% of the visitors at the IMA, while the take up rate was much lower when installed at another institution.


Fig 4: Visitors using the Pointillize Yourself app at the Indianapolis Museum of Art.

  • Better communication of key messages: Given the more structured exhibition-development approach and the better integration of interpretive tools, it is not surprising that the new process has also resulted in the more effective communication of key messages, as evident in fig. 5.

Indianapolis-Fig5Fig. 5: Graph showing how key messages (learning outcomes) have been communicated more effectively using the new exhibition development model.

Challenges of the New Exhibition Development Process

Despite the encouraging results that we have had so far with this process, its implementation has not been without difficulties. The new process, in fact, represents a relatively radical departure from the way in which exhibitions have been developed at the IMA for a long time; so it is not surprising that there has been some resistance towards this model. This includes:

  • Fear of dumbing down: The main concern that has been expressed by some staff members is that by attempting to integrate elements that respond to visitors’ interests and by including non-art experts in the decision-making process, the academic soundness of the exhibition could be compromised, resulting in an experience that panders to public or popular interests and may appear to be “dumbed down.”
  • Distraction from the works of art: Another concern is that the increased use of interpretive tools, and their installation in proximity to the art as a way to maximize impact, may distract visitors from experiencing the actual works of art.
  • The challenge of adapting canned exhibitions: Organizing institutions of travelling exhibits are unfamiliar with our development process and have often been uncomfortable with the idea of adapting the show to respond more specifically to the needs of our audience.
  •  The process is more time-consuming and contentious: Another point to consider is that this new exhibition development process has required more staff time, as it involves more meetings to work collaboratively and to reach consensus on issues where team members hold different viewpoints. This can be a challenge in an institution where resources and staff are limited.

While these concerns have been somewhat mitigated by the successful implementation of our most recent exhibitions and the positive feedback from the public, some opposition still persists. Our hope is that in the next few years, as we continue to use the model, refine it, and assess the more long term effects of this approach, we will be able to eliminate the remaining resistance and extend the scope of the new approach to our permanent collection galleries as well.


Silvia Filippini-Fantoni
Indianapolis Museum of Art


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