Performance-oriented design methods
for audience studies and exhibition evaluation

General description

In general, museums are institutions with long histories. However, this does not mean that they should be regarded as static entities. Rather, as mediators of significant intangible assets such as identity, culture, knowledge and memory, museums are focal components that play an increasingly active role in our contemporary societies where ubiquitous diversity and mobility seem to be the norm. Aalto University’s work in the Beyond Matter project will address the area of audience and community involvement (user studies) in the interpretation and subsequent use of the knowledge created in the exhibitions produced. Our primary objective will be, together with our partners’ and their audiences and communities, develop and realize strategies of engagement that enable and promote the interpretive opportunities afforded by new media utilized.


It could be argued that over the last two decades museums communication evolved partly due to the increasing use of new media. In the contemporary museum more and more messages of the exhibition arrive to the public via and through visitors’ direct involvement (Macchia & Díaz-Kommonen). A key issue for media design in this situation is the need to create meaningful communication cycles involving recognition, exploration and reliance, or what Krippendorff refers to as the ‘natural’ handling of something so that attention can be focused on the consequence of its use (89), since it is these that will support and facilitate the audience and communities’ attention, navigation, and learning through the exhibitions. In a recent review of the current exhibition, Making More Interactive Citizens at the Smithsonian National Museum of History Megan Smith describes how such interpretative conversational frameworks are being used in museum pedagogy. She acknowledges how “…getting visitors talking – with us and with each other – can help them better understand history and their role in it… (44)”

Our work

We propose to develop and implement a framework that uses Performance-oriented design methods for audience studies and exhibition evaluation (PORE) to study and analyse the audiences’ responses to the exhibition. We want to do this in a way that allows creativity and openness as well as promotes new experiences and end-user content creation. For example, as part of our scholarly work with the exhibition contents we propose to use artefact analysis. This is a method that originates in archaeology and museum studies but which has been adapted for use as part of the designer’s toolbox (Díaz-Kommonen 2014; Djindjian 2000; Pearce 1994). It allows us to realize contextual inquiries and enables us to tease out the different dimensions of human activity and practices as they are embedded in the artefact-objects so that they can be subsequently used in content and narrative creation.


As human-centred design methods these tools can be inserted as part of the exhibition itself as a way of providing an opportunity for the Museum personnel to engage with their end-user community and 1. Learn about their identities, histories (the similarities as well as the differences 2. Gauge aspects of the exhibition, such as for example user quality of experience, that would otherwise remain inaccessible and 3. explore the contents and the issues that emerge throughout the interactions from different perspectives (including “I” and “we” oriented perspectives). Or they can be used after the exhibition is created as part of the program of activities designed for each of the sites.


An initial list of these performance-oriented methods includes: Autoethnography as a method that encourages content development from a first-person point of view; duoethnography as using autoethnographic exposition that includes multiple participants interacting and presenting in the form of dialogue; protocol analysis as a performative method where participants use thinking out loud techniques to candidly describe responses to an object or situation; role-playing and as when participants are asked to assume different roles or personas; informances as when the role-playing includes also the acting out – bodystorming (Oulasvirta et al.) – of responses to imagined artefacts or situations; and scenario design which presupposes the performing of a given story.


Dr. Lily Díaz-Kommonen


Díaz, L. 2017. Visualising ourselves through artefacts and experience, Open Design for E-very-thing: Cumulus Working Papers. Kung, C., Lam, E. & Lee, Y. (eds.). Hong Kong: Hong Kong Design Institute, p. 505-509 5 p. (Cumulus working papers; vol. 33, no. 16).

Djindjian, F (2001). “Artefact Analysis”, in S. Zoran and T. Veljanovski (eds.) Computing Archaeology for Understanding the Past. CAA 2000. Computer Applications and Quantitative Methods in Archaeology. Proceedings of the 28th Conference, Ljubljana, April 2000, 41-52. (BAR International Series 931). Archaeopress, Oxford (ISBN 1841712256).

Krippendorff, K. (2006). The Semantic Turn, Boca Raton, FLA: Taylor Francis.

 Macchia, T. Díaz-Kommonen, L. (2017). “I did not think about that!”: New Media for Stimulating Exhibition Re-interpretation”, In D. Stuedahl and V. Vestergaard, (eds.) Göteborg, Media Innovations and Design in Cultural Institutions, Sweden: Nordicom, 53-68.

Oulasvirta, A., Kurvinen, E., Kankainen, T. (July 2003). “Understanding contexts by being there: case studies in bodystorming”. Personal and Ubiquitous Computing7 (2): 125–134. 

Pearce, S. 1994. “Thinking about Things”. In S. Pearce (ed.) Interpreting Objects and Collections, London & New York: Routledge, 125–132.

Smith, M. “Making More Interactive Citizens”, in Exhibition, Journal of the American Alliance of Museums, Vol. 37, No. 2, 44–51.