Participations: Journal of Audience and Reception Studies


Special Issue: ‘Researching audiences in digital mediated and interactive experiences’

Part of the AHRC Funded Project


Irida Ntalla (Schools of Arts, Cultural Policy and Management, City University)

& Dirk vom Lehn (Department of Management, King’s College London)

Participations is the online Journal devoted to the broad field of audience and reception studies, and has been running for ten years now, to be found at  It aims to bring into dialogue work and debate across all fields involved in examining all areas of media and culture.  Participations has pioneered a system of open refereeing for all contributions, designed to encourage open, critical debate among researchers.  This has been widely welcomed by contributors to the Journal.

Call for Papers

New media technologies and digital mediated environments bring histories and events close to audiences by offering a wide range of resources that provide them with opportunities for social, cognitive and emotional participation and engagement. At the heart of the development of new media technologies is “interactivity”, a characteristic ascribed to objects and systems that engage people in ways that go beyond traditional feedback procedures. These technologies facilitate sustained engagement and participation, allow for the communication of information and multimedia content, and often encourage people to produce and curate digital content.

Such interactive technologies and environments have become a familiar feature of many cultural institutions, such as in museums, galleries and science centers. Interactive exhibits, immersive installations, digital interactives, virtual games and online platforms engage cultural audiences in new ways and at the same time challenge the concept of the audience per se and their experiences; for example, they invite visitors not only to view and examine curated content but increasingly involve visitors in the production and curation of it to create personal museum collections, user generated content, etc.

These technological developments therefore challenge the relationship of audiences with artists, curators, museums and heritage sites’ professionals, educationalists as well as exhibition and interactive designers. Their effectiveness as tool for interpreting and representing exhibits and as educational technology is often argued for but also ever so often challenged and criticized. Evaluations of new media technologies in cultural institutions arrive at contradictory findings, some arguing for their ability to increase people’s engagement and participation with content and exhibits whilst others warn that they distract from the original objects and disturb the sacred relationship between visitor and object, user and content. Indeed, research suggests that at times these technologies become the reason for people’s frustration and disorientation in online and physical environments.

This Special Issue will contribute to these discussions about the increasingly complex technological mediation of the relationship between social practices, cultural institutions, their cultural offerings and their audiences. The issue aims to add to debates in a range of disciplines such as audience and visitor studies, marketing, digital humanities, interactive design as well as museum studies and practices. The co-editors invite submissions of papers that investigate the relationships between audience, cultural institutions and content and the ways in which these relationships are being influenced by the increasing pervasiveness of new media technologies. We particularly welcome critical considerations of the concept of the audience and the user as well as of interactivity in cultural institutions and encourage the submission of short articles and reports that reflect professional and practical experience of technology deployed and used in exhibitions.

Amongst others, we hope the contributions will address questions like:

  • what are the issues of interactivity in relation to participation and engagement for online and offline audiences?
  • how does interactivity and interactive technologies in these settings influence the experience of visitors, audiences or users?
  • which are the elements that constitute and influence these experiences?
  • how are interactive technologies used to represent and interpret information, histories and narratives in cultural institutions?
  • what is the relationship of academic research on audiences, interactive media and professional practices?
  • how does a researcher capture interactive audience experiences? Which are the research methods used in the various disciplines?
  • what does “effectiveness” mean for different stakeholders in cultural institutions, and what are suitable research methods to evaluate, assess or measure the “effectiveness” of technology deployed to interpret cultural objects and enhance people’s experience and learning from these objects?
  • how different users such as specialised audience utilise online material, information and personalised collections?

The Special Issue will be constituted of research papers, theoretical and methodological investigations as well as of relevant reviews, short articles and reports by cultural institutions’ professionals, designers and consultants.



Paper Submission: 1st November 2013

Acceptance Notice: 19th December 2013

Final Submission: 21st March 2014

Final Publication: End of May 2014

Submission Guidelines

Please submit your papers to:

There is an interesting piece by the Nobel Prize Winner (2000) Eric R. Kandel in the New York Times.Titled “What the Brain Can Tell US About Art” Kandel’s piece contributes to discussions about art that have been going on for at least a decade now in the ‘science of the brain’. I remember vividly coming across Ramachandran and Hirstein’s article “The Science of Art” that pursues a similar argument as Kandel’s essay: by studying processes in the brain we can learn something about art itself. Kandel discusses some aspects of the emergence of this idea by briefly discussing the concept of the “beholder’s involvement” or “beholder’s share” as developed by Alois Riegl of the Vienna School of Art History, the teacher of Ernst Kris and Ernst Gombrich.

As part of the argument Kandel suggests that the brain completes  incomplete information s/he has received from the outer world. Interpretation of art therefore is a cognitive process through which the ‘beholder’ “recapitulates in his or her own brain the artist’s creative steps”. Furthermore, he argues that because our brains develop in much the same ways we are able to “see the world in pretty much the same way”. He thereby lodges intersubjectivity within  individual brains and presumes that intersubjectivity is a result of processes in the brain. Whilst he acknowledges that individual differences between people exist due to their individual life experience (“memories”) he ignores the situation in which people encounter works of art or other objects and how the specifics of that situation influences how people make sense of the pieces.

One situation in which people often encounter works of art are exhibitions in museums and galleries. When they examine a piece they are often with friends or acquaintances and in the presence of other people who spend time in the same gallery at the same time. The actions of all these people are perceiveable by all those in range and influence how they explore the galleries, what they look and for long and how they see and make sense of it. In museums, the individual spectator or ‘beholder’ is a myth that we rarely meet. For example, people stop at and examine works of art together. They stand with a companion side-by-side and sometimes, ‘independently’, at least for a short while, look to the piece. As their eyes cross the canvas, for instance of a famous Rembrandt portrait, something like Kandel’s version of interpretation might happen. But often already after two or three seconds one of them will refer to and comment on a particular exhibit feature that then for a short moment becomes the focus of the interaction between the pair. They briefly talk about the feature and then either return to an ‘independent’ inspection of the piece or leave the exhibit to continue with their exploration of the museum elsewhere.

The short moment when the two people align their perspectives to look a particular exhibit feature together and discuss it is when something is produced, momentarily, that we might call intersubjectivity. It is not lodged inside the people’s brains but the product of their oral and bodily actions. A moment later when the action stops the intersubjective sense making of the piece dissolves and the people continue their visit of the museum.

When calling the examination of the piece prior to the interactional engagment ‘independent’ I did not presume that the actions at the exhibit-face were arising separate from each other. Rather while the eyes cross the canvas of the painting the visitors are aware of each other and attend to even slight changes in posture and head direction as well as even to slight movements of the legs and feet that may display or foreshadow a shift in activity. ‘Independent’ and ‘individual’ therefore are not appropriate terms to describe even those moments when people  stand and look at exhibits while standing side-by-side without talking.

Essays like Kandel’s or Ramachandran and Hirstein’s article reflect how we think about looking at and interpreting art. “Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder” has become a folk description of aesthitic judgments. Interestingly however the statement is often used to account for differences in aesthetic judgment and not to display intersubjective agreement about aesthetics. Kandel’s point also resonates with us as readers who sit there individually ‘interpreting’ a text that in this moment is not available to others. I read the piece in an armchair while nobody else was around in the house. Imagine the article printed on a large poster or series of posters and being read by people in pairs. Maybe like those visitors facing Rembrandt’s portrait they would stop half-way through, discuss and maybe disagree about Kandel’s claim that intersubjectivity arises in our brains.

Essays and books like Kandel’s (2012) “The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconsciousness in Art, Mind and Brain, From Vienna 1900 to the Present” are fascinating reads. However, I wonder when the time will come that this kind of brain science will leave the laboratory and be made relevant where ‘the rubber hits the road’ or where people with brains, bodies and the ability to communicate and interact face works of art.

The design of systems to support people’s navigation of exhibitions often draws on concepts and theories about visitors’ movement through exhibitions. In reference to relevant literature it makes inferences about people’s interests in exhibits by the ways in which they navigate galleries and at which exhibits they stop and for how long. Thereby, designers and museum managers often talk about “visiting styles” and refer to a French paper by Veron and Levasseur (1991). Therein, the authors apparently, I haven’t read the paper, use an analogy from the animal world to describe four types of visiting style: ants, fishes, butterflys and grasshoppers. These types are seen as ideal types and it is argued that mixed styles of navigation are common. In fact, as Opperman and Specht (2000) suggest in reference to Bianchi and Zancanaro’s (1999) conference paper “the classification of a visitor is no longer made stereotypically by describing a visitor uniquely as one of the four animals, but as an estimation of the ‘degree of compatibility between the user’s movement pattern and the four stereotypes’ at a given point in time” (Bianchi and Zancanaro (1999) in Opperman and Specht 2000: p.132). From this typology probabilities are derived regarding people’s navigation pattern. This allows for the fact that visitors might change their visiting style ‘mid-fly’, i.e. as they navigate and exhibition. For example, a fish who has spent relatively little or no time with exhibits in one gallery, may encounter a gallery with objects s/he is more interested in and therefore spends more time with, thus turning into an ant.

This concept of visiting style links the  way and speed in which people navigate exhibitions to their level of engagement with exhibits. Underlying this concept of museum visiting are conventional measures of visitor research, i.e. the stopping and holder power of exhibits, coupled with theories of learning, such as the late Chan Screven’s (1976) goal-referenced approach that link assumptions about ‘learning from exhibits’ to the time people spend with exhibits. Using this approach it is possible to argue for technologies that promise to extend the time of people’s engagement with exhibits because according to theory, it leads to cognitive development.

A different but related kind of typology has been developed by John Falk (2009) in his book “Identity and the Museum Visitor Experience”. Here, Falk proposes to link visitor behaviour to people’s motivations  grounded in the identity. His argument is more complex than the typology discussed above. It can be seen as an expansion of earlier work by the same author where he together with colleagues investigated visitors’ agenda for museum visiting.

As Veron and Levasseur’s (1991) typology Falks differentiation of visitors in types represents a classification scheme that in reality cannot be found in this way. It is an attempt to bring order to a messy social world and seems very useful for museum managers and marketing managers because of this lack of messiness. They can use such typologies to make decisions about exhibition programmes or technologies to be deployed in their galleries.

Such theories about museum visiting however largely ignore the reality of visitors’ experience of museums. They neglect what people actually do in museums, how they approach, examine and depart from exhibits, and how they make experiences of exhibits and generate experiences for others. This neglect is grounded on related research that is primarily interested in the individual visitor or in groups and families that are considered as social entities rather than as dynamic social processes. Researchers see the origin of actions, such as the approach to an exhibit or the departure from an exhibit, in either the visitor’s motivation or in the design of the exhibit. Yet, save for very few exceptions these researchers rarely look at how people draw each other to examine exhibits, how they encourage each other to inspect objects in particular ways, how they generate experiences for each other and how they occasion each other to move on.

By investigating the details of people’s action at the “point of experience” where the action is and where the action can be observed, researchers see how people produce experiences of exhibits in interaction with others. Whilst on the surface these details appear to ‘messy’ a closer look reveals that they are systematically produced and intelligibly orderly. Visitors in galleries behave in intelligible ways and their action becomes observable and reportable as museum visiting, without them requiring theoretical typologies to make sense of each other’s action.

It would seem that basing decisions on detailed knowledge about what people are actually doing in museums would provide decision makers in museums with a safer footing than theories about visitors’ actions. Are there any museum managers or designers out there who use detailed observational or video-based research to inform their decision making?


For related research go here



Bianchi, A. and M. Zancanaro, Tracking Users’ Movements in an Artistic Physical Space, in Proceedings of the i3 Annual Conference: Community of the Future, Octo- ber 20 – 22, 1999 in Siena, M. Caenepeel, D. Benyon, and D. Smith, Editors. 1999, The Human Communication Research Centre, The University of Edinburgh: Edin- burgh. p. 103 – 106.

Falk, J. H. (2009). Identity and the Museum Visitor Experience. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press Inc. Retrieved from

Heath, C., & Vom Lehn, D. (2004). Configuring Reception: (Dis-)Regarding the “Spectator” in Museums and Galleries. Theory, Culture & Society, 21(6), 43–65. doi:10.1177/0263276404047415

Oppermann, R., & Specht, M. (2000). A Context-Sensitive Nomadic Exhibition Guide, 127–142.

Screven, C. G. (1976). Exhibit Evaluation: A goal-referenced approach. Curator, 52(9), 271–290.

Véron, E. and M. Levasseur, Ethnographie de l’exposition: L’espace, le corps et le sens. 1991, Paris: Centre Georges Pompidou Bibliothèque Publique d’Information.

vom Lehn, D. (2006). Embodying experience: A video-based examination of visitors’ conduct and interaction in museums. European Journal of Marketing, 40(11/12), 1340–1359. doi:10.1108/03090560610702849

vom Lehn, D. (2012). Configuring standpoints: Aligning perspectives in art exhibitions. Bulletin suisse de linguistique appliquée, 96, 69–90.

vom Lehn, D. (2013). Withdrawing from Exhibits: the interactional organisation of museum visits. In P. Haddington, L. Mondada, & M. Nevile (Eds.), Interaction and Mobility: Language and the Body in Motion. Berlin: de Gryter.

There is an interesting discussion about linearity of exhibitions over at Nina Simon’s Museum2.0. Ed Rodley (*wave back*) has added his own take on this discussion on his blog “Thinking about Museums“. Ed highlights the relationship and between on the one hand the physical or geographical organization of exhibitions and on the other hand the narrative organization of the content of exhibitions. He kindly refers to my own post from a couple of week’s ago where I was trying to explicate some of the advantages of exhibitions that physically organize their exhibits in a linear way. Such an organization suggests to visitors where the next exhibit is and by glancing over to people standing there, can assess when it is opportune to move on without pushing or nudging the others to leave that piece.

In a way, my studies highlight the delicateness of people’s exploration of these spaces and how polite and respectful they conduct themselves when moving through these spaces that are in Lyn Lofland’s Words “A World of Strangers“.  Yet, what I implied to say as well was that whilst we may not know the other people who explore the museum at the same time they are not ‘strange’ in the sense that we couldn’t make assumptions about the trajectory of their actions. By monitoring, maybe only from the corner of the eye, what others are doing, we can assess their engagement with an exhibit and align our actions with their state of engagement; for example, when the person at the ‘next’ exhibit takes their glasses off and makes a step backward we can presume that possibly they will withdraw from the piece. Moreover, by having observed where they have come from we can also assume where they may go next and thereupon prepare our next action. Thus, in museums with a linear organisation of exhibits that we often find in art galleries and in history (of art, science or culture) museums, an “organized walking” can emerge that Tony Bennett refers to in his “The Birth of the Museum” and that some have described as “museum discipline”; Stefan Hirschauer, for instance” talks about the silent shuffling through galleries in his study of the famous (or infamous) “Body Worlds” exhibitions.

Many exhibitions these days however lack such a visible linearity. For example, for years now exhibitions have been organized in thematic clusters. These clusters contain a number of exhibits that somehow make up the theme of the cluster. We find these clustered themes in particular in science centres. They are predominantly made up of hands-on and computer-based interactives that engage visitors for considerable time. These interactives are designed in different ways; some are configured like a challenge encouraging visitors to interact with them multiple time to see whether they can improve on their previous attempt, or to compete in the challenge with others. It therefore is never quite clear for others when a visitor or a group of visitors engaging with an exhibit bring a challenge to an end and move on, vacating the space at the interactive. This leads to curious forms of conduct in these clusters:

– Visitors standing behind others who interact with an exhibit can be seen as ‘waiting’ and therefore as applying some pressure on those engaged in an activity. Challenges therefore are brought to an end prematurely because of the pressure of others waiting behind

– Visitors may continue to interact with an interactive or display an involvement with an interactive because neighbouring exhibits are occupied by others and they do not know where to go next; they do not want to end up waiting without being occupied themselves.

– Visitors who are with somebody who interacts with an exhibit look over their shoulder and alert the ‘user’ to a neighbouring exhibit becoming available.

In these exhibitions therefore it is not obvious where to go next but the onward movement is often influenced by the ‘becoming-available’ of neighbouring exhibits. When Ed points to the difference between the geographical and narrative organization of exhibits, we can see that an organization of exhibits in a non-linear way might obscure the narrative relationship between exhibits. Visitors do not know anymore why they become involved with an exhibit now, other than that this exhibit has now become available. It would seem that the narrative gap arising from the non-linear organization of exhibits requires tools that make up for the deficit. Some exhibitions try to achieve coherence by providing visitors with information on text-panels or in other ways.

Some related research can be found here.

There are long-standing debates in sociology and museum studies as well as amongst museum practitioners as to the layout of exhibitions, i.e. the organisation of exhibits in a given gallery space. For long, exhibits were organised in a linear order, often reflecting the history or evolution of human kind, art, science and culture. Tony Bennett famously discussed the political debates about the history of museums. He mentions that at the time it was thought that people would acquire knowledge about ‘progress’ by slowly walking along gallery walls, from exhibit to exhibit like “waking brains”. Thus, it was assumed people would see and learn about humankind’s progress as they see the advancement of culture and technology at each next exhibit.

In the recent past the linear organisation of exhibitions has come under sustained criticism. Most recently a post by Nina Simon on her Museum 2.0 blog takes up the controversy about the linear organisation of exhibits by looking at online exhibitions. Nina Simon makes a number of interesting points and towards the end wonders: “I’d love to see research on how open and closed exhibition layouts impact visitor dwell time, satisfaction, and engagement. What have you observed?” When looking at the existing body of research on visitor behaviour in museums it is noteworthy that studies  largely focus on visitors’ experience rather than on the organisation of their visit. That is, in the centre of her interest is the outcome of people’s engagement with exhibits, not the practices through which people make the engagement with exhibits happen. There are of course notable exceptions like Stephen Bitgood‘s studies of circulation in museums and his research on the “economy of movement” (with Stephany Dukes) in malls.

In a related way research at the Bartlett School of Architecture conducted by Kali Tzortzi explores the relationship between the choices of curators and the architecture of museums. Amongst others this research suggests that the visibility of exhibits from various locations in museums influences where visitors go when they navigate museums.


Space Syntax (Bartlett School)

Surprisingly perhaps none of this research shows an interest in the ways in which visitors organise the navigation of exhibitions and the examination of exhibits in social interaction with others. However there is a growing body of studies that explores the social organisation of mobility in public places. These studies include research on car driving by Barry BrownEric Laurier, Pentti Haddington and Lorenza Mondada, guided tours by Mathias Broth, and my own research on mobility in museums. My studies investigate how people orient to the material and visible environment while practically organising their exploration of a gallery. For example, the studies I have conductd with my colleagues at the Work, Interaction & Technology Research Centre (King’s College London) explore how visitors to an art museum bring the looking at a Rembrandt painting to a close and jointly move on without disturbing companions or others who happen to be nearby. Or they examine how visitors arrive and come to stop at paintings and begin to look at them together while standing-side-by-side. Whilst the activities like the withdrawing from and moving to a next exhibit or the approach of a next exhibit may seem mundane and uninteresting they are critical for the way in which visitors orient to the layout of exhibits in a gallery.

0070401111001 (from vom Lehn 2006)

In particular with regard to the linear organisation of exhibits in museums it is worthwhile highlighting here that for visitors to be able to see the next exhibit and to already know what (kind of) exhibit that next exhibit is, helps them to organise their visit with others. They use the visibility of (the content of) the next exhibit, e.g. “another self-portrait”, to draw their companion’s attention to that exhibit and away from the exhibit they have been looking at previously. Thus, visitors are able to organise not only their own individual museum visit but also to influence the organisation of the museum visit of their companions. It is worthwhile stressing here that visitors are able to organise their visit in this way not only because the exhibits are organised in a linear way but because of the visibility of what (kind of) exhibit the next one is.

Furthermore, visitors can see whether that possible next exhibit is occupied by other visitors. They glance to the side and notice others looking at it. Thereby, they use the visual and bodily orientation of others at the next exhibit to gauge their state of involvement with this next piece. If visitors notice that the others are about to move on they prepare their departure from the current exhibit and orient to that next one.

In light of these observations it might be worthwhile reconsidering the critique of the linear organisation of exhibits:

– The linearity of the organisation of exhibits in the gallery coupled with a visibility of information about next exhibits can support visitors in aligning their organisation of the navigation of a gallery with that of other people.

– It is not only the visibility of next exhibits that people use to navigate museums but also they use the visibility of exhibits coupled with the visibility of other people’s actions at these exhibits to fashion their own action at the current exhibit.

– A practical viewpoint of research in museums highlights how the organisation of exhibits can help people with little or no preconception of the detailed layout of the exhibition to (practically) organise their museum visit.

for more on the research go here