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Immersion experiences can be found in many places. Ride simulators in shopping malls or a
variety of thrill rides in theme parks often provide feelings of immersion. Movie theaters create
immersion with 3-D technology or the surround screens of Omnimax theaters. Habitat exhibits
in zoos & aquariums often create a realistic feeling of time and place. Dioramas in natural
history museums have provided realistic-looking habitats for creatures of all kind and enhance a
feeling of immersion. Living history museums replicate experiences of a time and place in past
history and often capture an experience of bygone days for visitors. The number and popularity
of such immersion experiences suggest there is something of value in them to those who seek
them out. Despite all the attention to immersive experiences, we know relatively little about this
psychological phenomenon. Few researchers have studied the immersive experience and the
setting conditions associated with it.
This section of the book explores immersion experiences in exhibit design. The current
chapter is an introduction to the topic of immersion. Chapter 41, “The Role of Simulated
Immersion in Exhibitions,” discussed a number of issues related to immersion experiences.
Chapter 42, “Toward an Objective Description of the Visitor Immersion Experience,” provides
some data on the characteristics of immersive exhibits. Chapter 43 (“Memory of Objects,
Labels, and Other Sensory Impressions from a Museum Visit”) addresses additional empirical
questions related to immersion; in this case, it examines three types of knowledge recall (objects,
label information, and sensory experiences). Finally, Chapter 44 (“Dioramas in Exhibition
Centers”) provides a discussion of dioramas, one of the most common types of immersion
Although we will focus on simulated immersion experiences in museum environments, it
may be instructive to review the varieties of immersion experiences in everyday life. The
following types of experiences are by no means exhaustive. They are among the most common
of these experiences.
Museum Dioramas
The diorama has been used in museums for more than 200 years. It is still one of the most
popular types of simulated immersion in museums. Animal habitats, limestone caves, period
rooms in art museums, all fit into the diorama framework. Chapter 43 provides a more detailed
description and discussion on this type of immersive media.
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Landscape immersion in zoos and aquariums
Coe (1985), one of the leading advocates of naturalistic zoo exhibits, has termed this type of
design, “landscape immersion.” In his 1986 paper, Coe traced the history of exhibit design in
zoos, aquariums, and natural history museums in this paper. He suggests the following historical
Royal collections. Early wild animal collections were owned by royalty. "The animals
were caged in the last word of Baroque symmetry." In addition, curiosity collections by
royalty may have been the first natural history museums.
Public collections. As with royal collections, the organizing concept for public
collections was "based on whimsy and entertainment." Travelling bear shows and
"curiosities of every description" were the focus.
Taxonomic organization. "The rush was on to see who could identify and name the
most species or collect the oddest or rarest or most dramatic specimens..." This trend
began in the middle of the 18th Century.
Habitat exhibits . In museums, Bullock in 1809 is credited with the first habitat exhibits
and dioramas. The British Museum and the American Museum of Natural History were
leaders in this movement. In zoos, Hagenbeck's moated exhibits in a park near Hamburg,
Germany, became the model imitated by zoos everywhere.
Modernism . "The movement towards modernism in art and architecture has had a
profound effect on exhibit design." This approach is characterized by simplification,
abstraction, and universal abstraction. "The love affair with machinery in the 1930's and
40's resulted in thinking of buildings as functional architectural machines." Modernism
approach assumed that all problems could be solved by technology. "The tile-lined room
with a glass front and stainless steel furnishings became the norm for most larger zoo
Landscape immersion. Woodland Park Zoo and the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum
were leaders in landscape immersion. The attempt of this view is to duplicate as
accurately as possible, the animals' surroundings. The buildings. Although Hagenbeck's
work influences this view, the attempt of landscape immersion is to allow the visitor to
"become physically and psychologically immersed in the recreated habitat of the animal."
High-tech exhibits. Science museums, zoos, natural history museums and aquariums are
all using high tech exhibits today. This approach "usually surrounds the visitor with a
'high tech environment' as well as a collection of technological hardware." Examples
include touch screen computers, laser disk video systems, holograms, and robotics. I
would think it also includes virtual reality technology.
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I have some difficulty with Coe’s scheme. Are the last two periods (landscape immersion
and high-tech exhibits) really distinct? It seems to me that high-tech has been incorporated into
immersion exhibits in a number of ways. It’s also difficult to combine exhibit design practices in
zoos and natural history museums since habitat dioramas were being used in natural history
museums at the same time modern, minimalistic architectural design in zoos.
Virtual Reality
Virtual reality includes being immersed in a simulated environment and being able to control
movements and other responses within this environment. Harvey, Birjulin, & Loomis (1994)
noted the connection between immersion and virtual reality. Parke (2010) and his colleagues
report a project at Texas A&M College of Architecture that is exploring modular “spatially
immersive visualization” using the Wii controller.
Living History
Some living history museums attempt to create an immersive experience by reproducing not
only the physical environment, but the social environment as well. Staff may be dressed in
period clothing and be engaged in activities of the time period. Plimoth Plantation and Colonial
Williamsburg are examples of this attempt to bring history to life. Plimoth Plantation attempts to
keep the role-playing staff completely in historical context; they fail to acknowledge events that
have occurred after the historical time of the village.
Theme Park Rides
Traditionally, the difference between theme parks and exhibition centers such as museums
and zoos has been the major mission: theme parks mission is to make a profit, while museums
and zoos mission is, above all, educational. However, there is sometimes no clear distinction
between theme park experiences and museum experiences. For example, Disney’s Animal
Kingdom explicitly stated that education was its principle goal and casual observation suggests
that Animal Kingdom delivers its educational mission effectively. Most museum people would
now argue that education and entertainment can be combined (“edu-tainment”) for the benefit of
Some theme park rides attempt to create a feeling of time and place, others may create an
immersion experience by the power of autonomic nervous system stimulation. Thrill rides over
stimulate the sympathetic nervous system creating a strong emotional experience. Solomon’s
opponent-process theory may explain why this type of immersion is so popular.
Theater Experiences (e.g., 3-D movies and Omnimax)
The technology of 3-D movies seems to have an immersive impact on viewers. It is
common for viewers to reach out to try to touch objects that explode out from the movie screen.
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Omnimax movie screens provide another application of surrounding the viewer with the movie.
A somewhat older technology, planetarium theaters, can provide a similar experience.
Dioramas are the most common type of immersion exhibit. We might be perplexed why
immersion exhibits such as dioramas are so popular given their cost and visitor survey responses.
In a survey comparing natural history museums with science centers, Korn (1996) found that
dioramas were rated lower than “live demonstrations,” “things to hand/touch/manipulate,” and
“objects or artifacts.”
Given the audience popularity of immersion exhibits such as dioramas, Korn’s results are
puzzling. The dioramas contained in the museums from Korn’s study could have been of poor
quality. Perhaps visitors were telling us that they want variety in their museum experiences ; too
much of one type of exhibit media is not desirable. Another possible reason why dioramas were
poorly rated in Korn’s study may be the ambiguity of terms such as “immersion” and “diorama.”
To illustrate differences in definition, consider an article by Gilbert (2000). She defined
immersion as:
“a multi-sensory experience which allows visitors to walk into the ‘scene’ (unlike a
glass-fronted diorama). Such exhibits pull visitors out of the passive, one-dimensional
museum viewing ritual and transport them to a different time, place or situation where they
become active participants in what they encounter.”
I’m not sure what a “one-dimensional” museum might be, but I am concerned with her
limited definition of immersion. Gilbert requires “visitors to walk into the scene” to qualify as
an immersion experience; this specifically eliminates the possibility that a glass-fronted diorama
counts as an immersion experience. Gilbert’s definition is based on the physical qualities of the
exhibit. This approach has some conceptual difficulties since an exhibit may be designed to be
immersive, but is not experienced that way or alternatively, an exhibit that is not designed to fit
Gilbert’s definition may create a feeling of immersion.
My definition of immersive exhibits includes dioramas whether or not they are fronted by
glass (Bitgood, 1990a). Simulated immersion was defined as “the degree to which an exhibit
effectively involves, absorbs, engrosses, or creates for visitors the experience of a particular time
and place.” This approach recognizes that different setting characteristics may produce different
levels of feeling immersed and it is focused on both the designer intention and the impact of
exhibit design on people rather than defining exclusively on the physical qualities of the exhibit.
With a mail-back survey to ASTC members, Gilbert (2002) also attempted to assess the
reasons why museums might include immersive exhibits in museums. Her findings suggest
three major reasons: (1) to compete with other institutions as a leisure-time activity; (2) to
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capture attention and provide a memorable experience; and (3) to communicate exhibit content
effectively. It would be interesting to obtain data to assess how effective immersion exhibits
meet these three criteria.
There are a number of psychological experiences that are difficult to define. The feeling of
immersion seems to be one of these. It often refers to feelings of being in a time and place such
as a historical period (living history museums), or a animal habitat (zoos, aquariums, natural
history museums), or a geological formation (a limestone cave or a coal mine in a museum), or a
space flight (science center). To a larger or smaller degree, these experiences have an affective
impact. The experiences also have some conceptual and physical meaning -- they might
communicate what it feels like to explore a limestone cave, or to experience take off in a rocket
shuttle. The focus, of course, is on the experience rather than on formal learning. However, it is
hoped that the immersion environment enhances the vividness and meaningfulness of “book
learning” associated with the experience.
There are a number of psychological phenomena that may be relevant to the immersion
experience. For example, mental imagery techniques, used in relaxation and meditation, may
also be useful in museum experiences. Ask the visitor to imagine themselves in a time and
place. Doug Worts (1990) reported doing this at the Art Gallery of Ontario and we have reported
exhibit labels that attempt to do this in Attack & Defense at the Anniston Museum of Natural
Solomon’s (1980) opponent-process theory is helpful in understanding why experiences that
create an adrenalin rush is often sought out. Highly emotional reactions such as fear are often
followed by an opponent process, a state of euphoria. Bungy jumping and parachuting are
experiences that often create this type of opponent process.
The concepts of peak experience and flow from humanistic writers (e.g., Maslow, 1965;
Csikzentmihalyi, 1990 ) are also be relevant in the immersion experience.
Capturing the immersion experience in a more objective way is a challenge. In one of our
studies (Bitgood, et al, 1990b), we used the statistical method of factor analysis in an attempt to
examine major elements of immersive experiences. After a visit to the Anniston Museum of
Natural History, visitors rated their experiences on bipolar scales for each of the exhibit areas,
many of which contained dioramas. We found the following factors:
1. Feeling of time and place (looks real, etc.). The degree to which visitors had the feeling
they were the time and place created by the exhibit.
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2. Sensory involvement. Multiple sensory experiences (sight, sound, tactile, smell) appear
to enhance the feeling of immersion.
3. Meaningfulness (subject comes to life). Because immersive experiences appeal to more
than abstract language, the experience seems more “real” or meaningful.
4. Inhibiting factors. Stimuli that do not “fit” into the experience may inhibit the feeling of
immersion. When viewing an exhibit of an African savannah with lions, antelope, and
other animals, a high rise building in the distance is likely to interfere with feelings of
immersion. However, the presence of text labels, need not be inhibiting as indicated by a
Larsen’s (2002) study.
Larsen’s (2002) article addressed the question of how text labels influence the immersion
experience. The Ice Age exhibition contained a trail designed to bring the ice age to life.
Visitors found themselves surrounded by a spring woodland scene from Cincinnati’s last Ice Age
(20,000 years ago). The experience included animals, weather sounds, changing lighting effects
and scents of a pine forest. For the first eight years after opening, there were no text labels in the
exhibit since it was assumed that the preceding exhibits provided a pre-organizer for the
immersion experience. Many at the Museum believed that text labels would detract from the
immersion experience. Two text labels were mocked up and tested. Larsen states: “Reactions
to labels were overwhelmingly positive. All of the 72 visitors interviewed preferred the labels
for a variety of reasons.” (p. 15)
Much research is needed to study the relative influence of various design elements that
contribute to immersion. There is some evidence that the following factors are important,
although we cannot make claims about the relative impact of each.
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.
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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.
Attempts to recreate an immersive experience are not always successful. Jones and
Wageman (2000) assessed four immersion exhibits at the Tech Museum of Innovation in San
Jose. Two of the exhibits were successful in creating feelings of immersion (Cleanroom and
Med Tech), but two were not (Electronic Café and Planetary Base). The authors attribute the
failure to a lack of a realistic illusion from the visitor viewpoint. Abstract representations of
umbrellas in the Café were not recognized as umbrellas.
We can illustrate our point by reviewing two studies (Peart, 1984; Peart & Kool, 1988) that
assessed knowledge gain in addition to other measures of exhibit effectiveness. These studies are
similar to many others that use tests of semantic knowledge as a measure of exhibit
effectiveness. The main argument in the current article is that, by using incomplete measures of
knowledge, researchers restrict themselves to semantic knowledge and fail to assess other types
of memory (e.g., visual and episodic).
In a systematic comparison of conditions, Peart (1984) gave recall tests to groups exposed to
different combinations of exhibit elements: (1) label only; (2) picture with label; (3) object only;
(4) object with label; and (5) object, label, and sound. His measures included: attracting power,
holding power, knowledge gain, and attitude change. One of the obvious results was that only
when the label was present did participants show knowledge gains compared to the control
condition. The recall performance of the object-only condition was similar to the control subjects
who were not exposed to any exhibit. While this study shows that semantic knowledge gains
require text, they fail to indicate that concrete visual experiences may also have resulted in
learning. Had Peart used a visual test (e.g., recognition of a photo of the object), it is certain that
visitors would have shown that they acquired visual knowledge. The point is that by restricting
measures exclusively to semantic knowledge, there is danger of concluding that very little
knowledge acquisition occurs, although the range of possible knowledge outcomes are not being
In another report, Peart and Kool (1988) described an evaluation of an exhibition called
Living Land/Living Sea at the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria, British Columbia.
The exhibition includes open dioramas of forest and seashore settings, closed dioramas of Ice
Age mammals and river delta habitats, and small didactic (primarily text) exhibits. Researchers
measured attracting power, holding power, knowledge gain, and attitude change in a control
group of 56 visitors before they entered the exhibition and an experimental group of 56 visitors
as they exited the exhibition.
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As part of their analysis, they divided the 46 exhibits in the Living Land/Living Sea gallery
into "concrete" and "abstract" exhibits. The 17 concrete exhibits were three-dimensional and
contained objects and dioramas; and the 29 abstract exhibits were two-dimensional text panels. A
Concrete Index was formulated based on size of the exhibit, whether the exhibit was open
(without glass), or closed and the presence-absence of graphics, sound, motion, small specimens
or models. The assumption was that larger exhibits are "more concrete (or real) than small ones,
that open dioramas are more concrete than ones with glass in front of them, and that the
stimulation of other senses such as smell and sound will increase the concreteness of an exhibit."
(Peart & Kool, 1988; p. 119).
In terms of behavioral outcomes (attracting and holding power), the concrete exhibits were
more successful. Even when size was removed from the correlation, the concrete exhibits (e.g.,
dioramas) were still highly related to attracting and holding power. Knowledge gain measures,
on the other hand, showed a different pattern. There was an inverse correlation between
knowledge gain and exhibit type (although this trend was not statistically significant). The higher
the Concrete Index, the less knowledge gain. There was no significant difference in attitude
change between concrete and abstract exhibits.
The authors conclude that:
"Those exhibits judged to be the most successful in behavioral terms, i.e., the larger concrete
exhibits, were not the most successful in educational terms. The negative relationship between
knowledge gain and minimum viewing time, and the implied negative relationship between
knowledge gain and Concrete Index scores, leads us to conclude that dioramas are not the best
vehicle for communicating ideas. This finding reinforces the concept that large diorama- type
exhibits be used to `wow' visitors, but if we want to teach them anything, we should probably go
for the small exhibit whose message can be gleaned in a relatively short time." (Peart & Kool,
1988; p. 127).
The implication that dioramas `wow' but do not teach is unwaranted given the measures used.
Since dioramas involve primarily visual experiences, a visual test of knowledgewould have been
more appropriate to assess impact than a test of semantic knowledge. The visual test might
include: having the respondent choose an illustration from among several others that shows Ice
Age species or asking the respondent to identify which photo shows a river delta habitat.
While concrete, visual experiences may not be the best vehicle for communicating semantic
knowledge, their role for comunicating other kinds of knowledge (e.g., visual and other sensory
impressions) should not be ignored. Bitgood and Cleghorn (1994) provide one alternative for
studying some of these other types of knowledge.
The following chapters (41 through 44) explore immersion and immersive environments.
Because of the investment of resources required for immersive exhibits, considerable thought
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needs to go into planning. Additional research is needed to answer specific questions about how
to design effective immersive experiences.
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