Personalizing Virtual Exhibits to Your Visitors

This post is the fifth post in a series on virtual exhibits. Here are the other posts (in case you want to check them out!):

  1. Should museums invest in virtual exhibits?
  2. What is a virtual exhibit?
  3. Who is going to visit your virtual exhibit?
  4. For virtual exhibits, the medium is the message.
  5. Personalizing Virtual Exhibits to Your Visitors.
  6. Giving Visitors Control Over Virtual Content
  7. Designing Virtual Exhibits to Facilitate Better Social Interactions than Facebook
  8. Virtual Exhibit Case Study: Making Friends around American History

*BONUS POST: Top 10 Virtual Experiences of 2020*

The beloved museum practitioner Nina Simon compares personalizing exhibits to hosting a cocktail party. At a cocktail party, the host uses their knowledge about the guests and their home to introduce people with common interests, guide guests to the bathroom, and help everyone find their favorite snacks and drinks. Similarly, “if you want to help [museum] visitors and staff members connect with the people who will be most interesting and useful to them, you need to welcome them personally and acknowledge their individual interests and abilities,” Simon states. “[By] welcoming people personally and responding to their specific interests, you can foster an environment in which everyone will feel confident and energized about participating with your institution and with each other,” (Simon, 2017).

In short, personalized experiences empower visitors to sort through content and to select opportunities to interact with other visitors, allowing each visitor to focus on what they find meaningful and exciting.

Virtual exhibits have an even greater potential to be effectively personalized than physical exhibits because of the well-developed personalization tools already available on the internet. The internet that you see is vastly different from your parents’, your neighbor’s, or even your spouse’s. Google, Facebook, Instagram, and almost every other site you use are tracking your habits and personalizing what you see on their sites to your interests. You only see content that is relevant to you.

There are serious privacy concerns around the way big companies collect our data and troubling questions about whether personalization creates a more polarized society. However, I believe we can find ways to harness the positives of personalization for our virtual exhibits, while avoiding the ethical pitfalls of for-profit internet giants.

In order to personalize virtual exhibits to your visitors, you need to know who they are. You can collect some info on your visitors from audience research, but ultimately you will need profiles of individual visitors. “This doesn’t mean letting them tell their life story. It means designing profiles that are specific to the experiences available at the institution,” Simon relates. “If the institution offers programs in multiple languages, visitor profiles should include their preferred language of engagement. If the collection is vast and varied, visitor profiles might include favorite iconic objects or themes. The right profile-making activity solicits just enough personal information to deliver high-value outcomes” (Simon, 2017). 

To create visitor profiles, ask visitors to answer a few questions that are relevant to the exhibit content before they enter your virtual exhibit. You can also give visitors the option to login to the exhibit via a social media platform and ask them to share their data from that platform with you.

Once visitors are using the exhibit, observe them. For example, you can program the exhibit to track how long visitors spend at different elements. As you observe your visitors, tell them what data you’re collecting and give them easy access to the data you’ve collected. It’s the ethical thing to do. 

Once you understand your visitors’ profiles, you can adapt your exhibit to them. There are three primary ways to adapt your exhibit to your visitors:

  1.  Alter the artifacts that are presented in a given location, 
  2. Change the media and text that go with objects based on needs of the visitor, and
  3. Modify how visitors navigate through the virtual environment (Bonis et al., 2013, p.183-4).

I haven’t come across a public virtual exhibit that is personalized and adapts to users, but academics have experimented with this type of exhibit on small scales. A group of professors at the University of Denver created a framework for personalizing exhibits called adaptive virtual exhibit (AVE). Bill Bonis, Spyros Vosinakis, Ioannis Andreou and Themis Panayiotopoulos explored a very similar framework for personalizing virtual exhibits called Personalised Virtual Exhibition Platform (PeVEP). 

PeVEP organizes exhibit content into a “hierarchical taxonomy of content categories,” (Bonis et al, 2013, p. 187) called a Semantic Graph. The Semantic Graph organizes information like an evolutionary tree, with an overarching group (ex. fish), subgroups (ex. jawless fish and bony fish) with their own subgroups (ex. A subgroup of bony fish could be ray finned fish).  

The authors used the Semantic Graph as the basis for the visual organization of the virtual space. Each overarching category is a “room” connected via doors to other rooms, or categories (so, for example, “fish” would have a door to “mammals” and “reptiles”). Inside the rooms are objects (for example, in the fish room, you could have a panel about how fish breathe or a microscope with fish scales). The Semantic Graph defines how closely rooms are related to other rooms and objects, just like an evolutionary chart defines this. Visitors start their journy through the space in a central rotunda room with doors to all the highest level categories (for example, fish, mammals, and reptiles). They move physically with their keyboard and mouse through rooms of the same category level (so, from fish to reptiles) and use navigation panels to go to a level down in specialization (from fish to bony fish). 

PeVEP gathers data on visitors in order to personalize the exhibit to their interests. The higher a visitor’s interest value for an object, the more interested the program thinks they are in it. Before they enter the exhibit, each visitor’s interest values for all objects start at zero. 

Visitors’ first task in the exhibit is to select an avatar from a library. The PeVEP program make inferences about the visitors demographic profile based on the avatar they select (a potential flaw being if the visitor selects an avatar that doesn’t reflect them in reality). The visitor’s interest values are tweaked based on their avatar. 

Once visitors are inside the exhibit, PeVEP measures the amount of time a visitor engages with an object and whether they just look at it or manipulate it. Based on this data, PeVEP reconfigures the space – structuring rooms and objects to be more interesting to the viewer. 

Personalized exhibits are not democratic exhibits. Curators still have a huge impact on visitors’ perception of the subject matter. The authors of PeVEP  argue that the Semantic Graph reflects “a natural content interpretation” (Bonis et al, 2013, p.189). However, there is no such thing as a “natural content interpretation.” This act of categorizing is their curation. The curator not only defines the categories, but also collects the objects, creates the avatars, and decides on the layout of the spaces. 

But, it is possible to design exhibits that both honor expertise and invite visitors to co-create the content. The next installment of this series on virtual exhibits will explore how to give visitors control over exhibit content. Stay tuned!

This post is the fifth in a series on virtual exhibitsJoin our mailing list to get the rest in your inbox!

Sources (click on a source to access it)

“A Brief History of Personalization: Past, Present, Future.” TNOOZ and Boxer, June 2015. 

Ahmad, Shamsidar, Mohamed Yusoff Abbas, Mohd. Zafrullah Mohd. Taib, and Mawar Masri. “Museum Exhibition Design: Communication of Meaning and the Shaping of Knowledge.” Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences 153 (2014): 254–65. 

Arkenberg, Chris, Heather Rangel, and David Jarvis. “Rebuilding a Stronger Digital Society.” Deloitte Insights. Accessed October 12, 2020. 

“Authentication Versus Data Access.” Authentication Versus Data Access – Facebook Login – Documentation – Facebook for Developers. Facebook. Accessed October 12, 2020. 

Bartle, Richard A. Designing Virtual Worlds. Indianapolis, IN: New Riders Pub., 2004.

“Below the Surface.” Below the Surface – Archeologische vondsten Noord/Zuidlijn Amsterdam. Accessed October 12, 2020. 

Bonis, Bill, Spyros Vosinaki, Ioannis Andreou, and Themis Panayiotopoulos. “Adaptive Virtual Exhibitions.” DESIDOC Journal of Library & Information Technology 33, no. 3 (2013): 183–98. 

Byrd-McDevitt, Lori. “The Ultimate Guide to Virtual Museum Resources.” MCN, September 18, 2020. 

Cudworth, Ann L. Extending Virtual Worlds: Advanced Design for Virtual Environments. New York: CRC Press, 2017. 

“Digital Footprint.” Digital Footprint Definition. Accessed October 12, 2020. 

Doukianou, Stella, Damon Daylamani-Zad, and Ioannis Paraskevopoulos. “Beyond Virtual Museums: Adopting Serious Games and Extended Reality (XR) for User-Centred Cultural Experiences.” Visual Computing for Cultural Heritage Springer Series on Cultural Computing, 2020, 283–99. 

Jakobsson, Mikael. “Virtual Worlds & Social Interaction Design,” 2006. 

Katz, James E., and Daniel Halpern. “Can Virtual Museums Motivate Students? Toward a Constructivist Learning Approach.” Journal of Science Education and Technology 24, no. 6 (2015): 776–88. 

Komianos, Vasileios, and Konstantinos Oikonomou. “Adaptive Exhibition Topologies for Personalized Virtual Museums.” IOP Conference Series: Materials Science and Engineering 364 (2018): 012011. 

Koszary, Adam. “Has the Digital Museum Finally Come of Age?” Apollo Magazine, May 4, 2020. 

MacDonald, Craig. “Assessing the User Experience (UX) of Online Museum Collections: Perspectives from Design and Museum Professionals.” Museums and the Web 2015. Accessed October 12, 2020. 

Perry, Sara, Maria Roussou, Maria Economou, Hilary Young, and Laia Pujol. “Moving beyond the Virtual Museum: Engaging Visitors Emotionally.” 2017 23rd International Conference on Virtual System & Multimedia (VSMM), 2017. 

Shayna Hodkin, Swayy. “The Internet of Me: Creating a Personalized Web Experience,” August 7, 2015.

Simon, Nina. The Participatory Museum. Santa Cruz, CA: Published by Museum 2.0, 2017. 

Yeh, Shea-Tinn, Jeff Rynhart, Thomas Dressler, and Fernando Reyes. “3D Adaptive Virtual Exhibit for the University of Denver Digital Collections.” Code4Lib Journal, July 15, 2015. 

Photo Credits (in order of use)

Photo by geo uc on Unsplash

Isabel Singer, screenshot

Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash

Photo by August de Richelieu from Pexels

Image by Paul Henri Degrande from Pixabay


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