Are interactives worth having?

A wide range of museums are increasingly interested in using interactives to engage a contemporary audience. But is this affordable, and is it really worth the cost?

Whilst interactives tend to change visitors’ perception of a museum from “dry and dusty” to a place that is “modern”, “explores current issues” and is “forward looking”(1), production costs are typically double the cost of static exhibits, with operating and maintenance up to six times the amount (2). So what is it that makes interactivity worth having and why is it so expensive?

Visitors tend to come to museums for a social experience, often already in a group, with family, friends, or a school class. A well designed interactive enhances both the social enjoyment and the learning outcomes of their museum visit. Social interaction, particularly when it involves collaboration and cooperation, leads to the long-term retention of information, not just “skills and knowledge”, but changes in “perspective and awareness”, and “social outcomes”(3). If you want your exhibition to be engaging and to have a lasting impact, then social interactivity is very useful.

Interactives are usually more expensive than static displays both because they require significantly more design and production time, and because they tend to use complex technology, that is also expensive to fix when it breaks down. Computer interactives are usually the most expensive. In my experience, one computer interactive costs about the same as fifty square metres of static display.

 Students working together to select battle order equipment for the Survivor WW1 interactive at the Central Hawke’s Bay Settlers’ Museum.

Students working together to select battle order equipment for the Survivor WW1 interactive at the Central Hawke’s Bay Settlers’ Museum.

Interestingly, despite the common assumption amongst museum providers that computer interactives are best, they consistently ranked low or last in visitor preferences at the San Diego Natural History Museum in 2011 (4). Computer interactives rarely support meaningful social interaction, and can even reduce social interaction as typically only one person can participate at a time. Computer interactives must be written along predetermined parameters, whereas low tech interactives can provide open-ended visitor-directed experiences that are different every time, thus encouraging repeat visitation.  What is more, many people now have a computer game in their pocket, so it is a hardly a novelty to experience one in the museum.

Interactivity is popular with, and indeed expected by many visitors. But think twice before forking out for expensive technology, because a low tech solution that encourages collaboration and cooperation, is likely to be a more effective use of your funds. Shiny and expensive is not necessarily best.


  1. Curator The Museum Journal Vol 47/2, p180 “Interactives and Visitor Learning”, John H. Falk, Carol Scott, Lynn Dierking, Leonie Rennie, Mika Cohen Jones.
  2. Curator The Museum Journal Vol 47/2.  “The Economics of Interactivity”, Robert ‘Mac’ West
  3. Curator The Museum Journal Vol 47/2, p185 “Interactives and Visitor Learning”, John H. Falk, Carol Scott, Lynn Dierking, Leonie Rennie, Mika Cohen Jones.
  4. Curator The Museum Journal Vol 47/2, p163 “Interactivity: Moving Beyond Terminology”, Mariana Adams, Jessica Luke and Theo Moussouri