Best Practices for Interactive Exhibits

November 05, 2018

Digital Interactive

digital interactive worksheet

Let’s Talk About Interactive Exhibits…

In this blog, we will review the best practice of touch screen and mechanical interactives.

So, what exactly is an “interactive” exhibit?

It can be defined in many ways, but the three main categories of interactive exhibits are:

  • Digital Interactive Exhibits: Computer software driven by touch screen, projection, push buttons, or other hardware that allows visitors to interact, make choices, or navigate through content. Digital interactives can be as complex as simulations, “Kinect” style interaction, virtual reality, and augmented reality, or something as simple as a touchscreen kiosk.
  • Hands-On, Mechanical Interactive Exhibits: Analog mechanical devices utilizing buttons, levers, pulleys, gears, and other elements that carry out a physical action that provides connection to exhibit content. Hands-on interactives might include objects you pull, lift, turn, or touch to learn more about a concept or artifact.
  • Hybrid Interactive Exhibits: combine digital technology with mechanical elements.

Why Develop an Interactive Exhibit?

As audience demographics and learning styles become more diverse, it is becoming more difficult to hold visitors’ attention.

And it’s not just kids who are distracted. With a world of information and entertainment at our fingertips, it’s important to consider how museums can enhance existing exhibits to connect with how visitors are experiencing the world and provide unique experiences that visitors can’t have elsewhere.

For some museums, like children’s museums or science centers, interactive exhibits are at the core of the visitor experience. Exhibits are touchable and invite visitors, young and old, to engage physically with the environment, props, and activities.  For other more traditional museums, focused on art, history, or natural history, interactive experiences may seem novel, irrelevant, or even impossible to integrate into the subject matter presented. However, interactive experiences provide many unique benefits to both the museum and the visitor.

How Interactive Exhibits Add Value to the Visitor Experience

Interactive exhibits change the way visitors learn in museums by creating iconic experiences that they remember for years to come. Interactive experiences create opportunities for visitors to navigate exhibit content in new ways. Unlike static displays, interactive exhibits connect with different types of learners and combine interpretive content with digital or mechanical elements that allow a deeper and more engaging connection. Added to an existing artifact display with interpretive graphics, an interactive exhibit might allow visitors to experience the following:

  • Interaction with things that aren’t visible or tangible (atoms, molecules, etc.).
  • Interaction with things that aren’t safe or accessible (electricity, outer space, fragile artifacts).
  • Previously “static” topics come to life and invite curiosity.

Recently, I had the pleasure of visiting the Cleveland Museum of Art’s Gallery One exhibit. I personally liked how they integrated a digital interactive into the museum experience. Rather than asking visitors to put down their phones (good luck!), Gallery One provides an app that can be loaded to visitors’ mobile phones. The app then connects with a massive digital touch wall that not only helps visitors navigate the building, it also helps them select pieces of art they wish to see and provides deeper content than what can reasonably fit on a label or interpretive panel. Visitors can essentially plan their trip to the museum, enjoy additional content while visiting works of art, and then continue learning when they return home by revisiting the app.

Additional Benefits of Interactive Exhibits

In addition to changing how, where, and when visitors access and connect with exhibit content, digital interactives, like Gallery One, provide museums with the opportunity to collect data, learn more about their visitors, and understand what content is resonating with their audience.

Mechanical interactives provide many of the same benefits as digital interactives, just in different ways. These exhibits typically provide a lot of bang for the buck. They are often less expensive to develop than digital interactives and they provide unique and often iconic experiences that a visitor can’t have elsewhere. When people of all ages carry technology in their pockets, providing a hands-on experience can be incredibly impactful and memorable…not to mention Instagram-able. While they may not connect with mobile devices or collect data, visitors will want to take photos and share their experience on social media, which will hopefully drive new visitors to your museum.

Overcoming the Challenges associated with Developing an Interactive Exhibit

There are just as many benefits as there are challenges when creating an interactive exhibit. Although there are many similarities between static and interactive exhibits, understanding and implementing new technologies and process can cause a cumbersome learning curve for most museum professionals.  Refer to this list of best practices to avoid unnecessary headaches and increase the efficiency and effectiveness of your interactive exhibit project.

Best Practices for Digital and Mechanical Interactive Exhibits

The Experience

  • It should be fun and engaging!
  • It should enhance the surrounding exhibit experience and tie into key exhibit content.
  • It should be simple and intuitive. Visitors should have a basic understanding of how the interactive works without having to read too many instructions.
  • Content and aesthetics should be consistent with the surrounding exhibit experience.
  • Colors and materials used to build the components should remain consistent with the style guide of
    the exhibit and surrounding area.


  • Write out the goals and objectives of the Interactive. Refer to these objectives throughout design and development to ensure that the concepts are working towards meeting these goals.

Best practices for a digital/touchscreen interactive

Graphic User Interface

  • The interface should be simple!
    The interactive should have an “attract screen” to let users understand a touch screen IS interactive.

    • The attract screen should have some movement, or slide show elements to avoid screen burn.
  • Should offer a clear navigation with obvious links to help guide the user through the experience.
  • Avoid typing at all costs.
    • Hardware causes clutter, and typing on a touch screen is cumbersome and leaves room for misspelled
      words and other unwanted errors. An intuitive experience should not require text input from the user.
  • Graphics and text should be high-contrast to support those with color blindness or low vision.

Best practices when designing a mechanical interactive

Physical User Interface

  • Pushbuttons, levers, dials and other touchable, moving components should be easy to spot.
    • Pushbuttons, levers, dials, and other touchable, moving components should be labeled with clear,
      but concise instructions.
  • Cause and effect or other concepts the interactive is demonstrating should be clearly visible.
  • Interactive components should be accessible to all visitors and should follow ADA
    and ASTM guidelines.
  • It must be safe!
    • Be careful to avoid pinch points, eye-poke hazards, and strangulation hazards. Exhibits should be
      fun and not a liability.

Best Practices for Developing a Mechanical Interactive

  • Know how long the interactive needs to last and design with that in mind.
  • Start with a “big idea” or story line for the entire gallery and stay true to that throughout the development process.
  • Avoid fads and aim for timeless experiences that are less likely to become dated or obsolete. Continue to refer back to the “big idea” or story line to ensure the interactives connect to it clearly.
  • Ensure that the people responsible for maintaining the exhibit long-term (internal staff or maintenance team) are a part of the interactive development process. Listen to their concerns.
  • Use a single producer for all exhibits in a given area.
    • This helps drive consistency of the aesthetic and functionality.
    • It ensures a single point of contact for questions, issues, or repairs.
    • It ensures that similar/identical hardware is used throughout the exhibit.
  • Be certain that the fabricator will support the exhibits for at least a year following installation.
  • Use standard, easy to replace parts whenever possible. Grainger, McMaster-Carr, and other suppliers have a variety of standard parts that you can often get delivered in less than 48 hours.
  • Ensure that the design creates access points for replacing parts that will be prone to wear out over time.
  • Prototyping, play testing, and failure testing are a critical part of the fabrication process. Be sure that key team members are present for testing and test to failure when possible to uncover any weaknesses that could impact the exhibit once it’s on the floor.
  • Test the exhibit with visitors representing your demographic. Be sure to include school groups and people with different abilities to ensure that components are durable and accessible.
  • Ensure that floor staff are trained on how to use the interactive and what to do if a component fails.

Key Questions to ask when developing any type of Interactive Exhibit

  • What is the purpose of the exhibit? Why build it?
  • Who is the target audience? Age range?
  • What are the learning objectives of the exhibit? How do they tie in with the overall gallery experience?
  • How will learning change with the addition of this interactive?
  • What is the investment & budget for this exhibit? 
    • What is the budget?
      • Design, fabrication, and installation.
      • Annual maintenance and replacement parts.

 Design, fabrication, and installation questions

Annual maintenance and replacement parts

  • What time and human resources will be required to develop and maintain the exhibit?
  • How will this experience integrate into the building?
    • Is power or data required?
    • How big will it be?
    • Will it need to move at any point in the foreseeable future?
  • What does facilitation look like for this exhibit?
    • Will the exhibit be “staffed”.
    • Does this exhibit encourage further exploration at home?
  • Maintenance: Who will support the exhibit and how will they do it?
    • Ensure that your producer provides a detailed Maintenance Manual for the interactive.
    • Establish a maintenance plan to ensure that it remains in good working order.
    • Keep spare parts on hand when possible.
  • Digital Interactive Maintenance: Will the interactive have a content management system? If so, what is the process to editing content in the system and who is responsible?
  • Who from your team will be involved in developing the mechanical interactive? What are the roles and responsibilities of each person?  
    • Who will have final sign off on direction, designs, prototypes and content ?
    • Who will be the main liaison to the agency? Who will be responsible for internal processes and communication between the team?  

We hope you enjoy this article and are encouraged to explore the world of interactive exhibits!
If you have any questions or comments please don’t hesitate to reach out and share your feedback.

This blog was a joint effort produced and written by Cathlin Bradley (Maltbie) and Chris David (Gecko Group).

About Maltbie
Maltbie is in the business of creating extraordinary experiences for museums, visitor centers and specialty projects all around the world. We work closely with design and client teams to produce projects that meet exceptional standards of creativity, technical mastery, environmental sensitivity and fiscal responsibility. Our creative, solution-seeking approach, combined with international pre-construction capabilities and meticulous project management services, have earned us a place among the leaders in this demanding field. We believe that those qualities and qualifications are the key to producing so many successful and highly regarded projects year after year.

About Cathlin Bradley
Cathlin Bradley has worked in the museum industry for over a decade, holding a variety of roles in museums and the firms that serve them. Each of her previous roles – designer, fabrication project manager, content developer, relative Director, and Exhibits Manager – has taught her something new and deepened her love of museums. With a Bachelor’s Degree in Industrial Design and a Master’s Degree in Arts Administration, Cathlin has developed a well-rounded perspective of what it takes to design and build an exhibit – or an entire museum – from the ground up. Her experience on staff with Georgia Aquarium and The Henry Ford Museum has contributed to her understanding of the practical steps in the exhibition development process, like fundraising and collections management, that outside contractors don’t often appreciate. Cathlin’s comprehensive understanding and holistic experience with the exhibit design and fabrication process led to her current role in Business Development at Kubik Maltbie, Inc. where she develops partnerships with clients, designers, and other parties to create engaging exhibitions for museums and their visitors.

Contact Cathlin: 513. 535. 8493 or by email:

About Gecko Group
Gecko Group is a leading Interpretive Exhibition design firm. We are experts in creating immersive experiences and making organizations’ stories relevant to their visitors. Our diverse portfolio features projects that include cultural and historical centers, natural history museums, aquariums and zoos, heritage regions, state parks, and other destination venues.

About Chris David
Chris has a background in Business Development, Graphic Design, Digital Marketing, and Website Development. His responsibilities include management of all operational marketing strategy along with building new and current client relationships. Alongside senior management, he works with prospective clients to outline and scope all aspects of new project developments.

Contact Chris: 610. 430. 0305 or by email:

digital interactive worksheet

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