Tilting at Windmills, Part One

[UPDATE: Somehow I left out the intro to this post, which explains where it, and the next two posts came from. I include it now]


I gave the worst lecture of my life the other night to an unlucky group of Tufts Museums Studies program students.  My sparkling presentation on digital media, replete with images of one of our current projects never before seen by outsiders, remained stubbornly trapped in the cloud. The backup version I had on a USB stick wouldn’t play on the instructor’s computer, and due to a massive Verizon outage earlier in the day, I’d gotten so wrapped up at work that I hadn’t printed out a hard copy of the presentation, like I always do, so I had no notes, only my memory to go on. About an hour into the class I had managed to download the one video I’d wanted to show off, so it wasn’t a total wash, but it was close.  But sometimes the Universe has a way of handing one consolation prizes, if one pays attention.

This post was born out of three questions we discussed in that class about topics that have been on my mind a lot; immersion, experience, and visitor picture taking. All three come up for regular beatings by commentators, and in my not-so-humble opinion, are all worth examining and unpacking a bit more before we cast any more stones. This first post will tackle immersion.

Immersion and learning

Our conversation about digital media in exhibitions took us in a lot of different directions, and one of those touched on a theme that has been getting a lot of attention of late – immersion. The exhibit I had intended to focus on was an immersive experience we are creating as part of the “Impressionists on the Water” exhibition that’ll be opening in a few weeks. I’m really proud of the work our team has done on it, and I’m dying to see what the public makes of it once the show opens. In response to a question about examples of immersive exhibits that were done well, I blurted out that I have a visceral negative reaction whenever people debate terms like “immersive” or “experiential” because they’re just the means for reaching the things we should be discussing. And in that way that things you think about all the time suddenly sound completely different the moment you say them out loud, I had that “a ha!” moment of realization.

Get with the flow

What I realized was that my discomfort with immersion lies in the fact that immersion, in and of itself, is not the point. The thing about immersion that is useful to a museum developer is that it provides a way to create the kind of flow experience where memorable learning can take place.  The heightened awareness, the multisensory richness, and the sense of being transported that good immersive experiences possess are useful because they make visitors more receptive to what happens then. If there is a “then”. Sometimes there isn’t, and you get immersion for immersion’s sake, ie. simulator rides. But when done in service of some interpretive goal, the results can be magic.  So when the discourse focuses on whether immersion is good or bad, I get kinda antsy, because my answer to that question is usually, “Well, it depends…” If it leads to that flow experience, then I’m all for it.

The next day, I started rooting around for references, and turned up a couple of likely-looking candidates to help understand immersion and it’s uses.  First was an interview with Alison Griffiths, author of “Shivers Down Your Spine: Cinema, Museums, and the Immersive View” that made me want to buy her book immediately. Here’s a couple of quotes,

“An immersive view is provided by an image or space such as a painting, photograph, film, or museum exhibit that gives the spectator a heightened sense of being transported to another time or place… Immersive views take you out of the here and now, giving you the experience of having suddenly entered a new world, similar to virtual reality, but without the headgear.”

“presence (essential in immersion), virtual travel, death, a “revered gaze,” visual spectacle, the sublime, and a sense of awe—are all mobilized in the museum.” 

The Millenium Falcon - a four minute flight to the edge of the universe and back.
The Millenium Falcon – a four minute flight to the edge of the universe and back.
Entrance to the Robot Object Theatre
Entrance to the Robot Object Theatre

That heightened sense being in the moment is what I strive for. It doesn’t have to involve virtual travel, though the travel metaphor does make it easier to sell the “You’re in a new place now. Discard your preconceptions and prepare to be amazed!” The Robot Object Theatre and Millennium Falcon exhibits in the Star Wars: Where Science Meets Imagination exhibition – two of the most full-on immersive exhibits I’ve ever worked on – ranked at or near the top in both the remedial and summative evaluations of the exhibition. The same was true of Chabot Space and Science Center’s Maya Skies exhibition, which included an immersive planetarium experience devoted to Mayan astronomy.

Dioramas and period rooms work for a reason

A couple of my last projects at the Museum of Science involved renovating a diorama hall, and a period room – two of the least cutting-edge display techniques out there. Yet, their staying power is huge and well-deserved. They are the immersive ur-expeience, an actual recreation of space at a 1 to 1 scale. When the Denver Museum of Natural History (now the Denver Museum of Nature and Science) redid their diorama halls, they did some amazing things to break down the fourth, glass wall and let visitors feel like they were literally in the scene. Evaluation results indicated that both a sense of immersion and flow were increased.

When I was handed the diorama hall job, I had assumed that I was going to need to develop a raft of technological interventions to “breathe life” into these dusty old displays. In the end, we dusted off the displays and opted to retain lower-tech, multisensory additions that focused visitor attention on the dioramas themselves. The major intervention I made in that exhibition was to make it more explicit that these dioramas depicted real places, not idealized ones, in essence playing up their sense of being another place.

Steve Bitgood’s Social Design in Museums devotes a couple of chapters to immersion in museums, often highlighting that old favorite low-tech exhibit: the diorama. In going through Chapter 40 again, I was struck by some of his factors that contribute to the feeling of immersion:

  • Realism of the illusion: how closely does the exhibit create the illusion of time and place?
  • Dimensionality: perceived degree of depth. Three-dimensions create more feelings of immersion than two. Dioramas are more immersive than a photograph; 3-D movies and surround movie screens are also likely to create a more immersive experience.
  • Multi-sensory stimulation: the presence of realistic sounds, feeling of coolness in a cave or
  • hotness in a desert are all likely to contribute to feeling immersed.
  • Meaningfulness: degree to which the subject matter comes to life. It must provide a topic of interest and allow a quick understanding of what it’s all about.
  • Mental imagery: degree to which visitor uses imagination to put himself/herself in the time and place.
  • Lack of interfering factors: sights and sounds that are incompatible with the illusion may interfere with the immersive experience.

I’d say that the same list would work for factors that contribute to creating a space where a flow experience can happen. The last one really stuck with me. Interference in this arena, according to Bitgood, means “sights and sounds that are incompatible with the illusion”, anything to break the spell, or agitate against it. An incongruous building in the background would qualify as interference if you were trying to make visitors think they were in the African savannah. Other visitors running and jumping would qualify as interference if your visitors were trying to have a contemplative solitary experience. And therein lies the segue to the next post on “experience” and “participation.”

Further Reading:

Shivers Down Your Spine: Cinema, Museums, and the Immersive View
Alison Griffiths
ISBN: 978-0-231-12989-3

Tisdal, Carey. (2006).

Tisdal, C. E. (2007).

“Influence of Immersion on Visitor Learning : Maya Skies Research Report,”
J. E. Heimlich, J. Sickler, V. Yocco, and M. Storksdieck.
Institute for Learning Innovation, 2010

“The Influence of Museum Exhibit Design on Immersion and Psychological Flow”
Mark L. Harvey, Ross J. Loomis, Paul A. Bell, and Margaret Marino
Environment and Behavior
September 1998 vol. 30 no. 5 601-627

“Designing immersion exhibits as border-crossing environments”
Marianne Foss Mortensen
Museum Management and Curatorship
Vol. 25, No. 3, September 2010, 323-336

Social Design in Museums: The Psychology of Visitor Studies: Collected Essays Volume One
Stephen Bitgood
ISBN: 978-1907697203


  1. Great point about the “and then” part of immersion and experiential learning. Designers who carry the torch for content, and who see multisensory experience as “fluff,” often point to exhibit spaces or interactives that don’t make use of the power of immersion to its full potential.

    To experiment with wasted potential, I attempted to alter the purpose of a hurricane simulator in a mall and wrote about it on Linda Norris’ blog:
    Food for thought.


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