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Exhibits, objects and emotion: can museums change behaviour?

Rachel Mackay explores how design choices in object display and exhibition design can create emotional impact and even change attitudes

Emotion has not always enjoyed a positive reputation within the museum and heritage world. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, emotion and heritage were considered unnatural bedfellows. Emotion in the heritage world was seen as mere nostalgia; an unhelpful distraction from the objective gaze of historyi.

In recent years, work by researchers such as Laurajane Smith has helped to overcome this. The value of engaging with emotion in museums is now well documented. Emotion can be used to challenge preconceived ideas, so that, as Smith explains: “greater engagement with hidden or marginalised histories and contemporary group sympathy may occur.”ii

Wildlife-Photographer-of-the-Year-2021 museums and emotion
Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition 2021, part of the Natural History Museum’s mission to create advocates for the planet. Image courtesy NHM

Can museums influence change?

One of the most powerful consequences of museums engaging with emotion is the idea that it can change attitudes or behaviours in our visitors. In the cases of museums and heritage sites that focus on social justice, for example, or climate change, the benefits of this are clear.

Affecting short-term behaviour change in visitors is relatively easy. Think of a sign saying ‘Please don’t walk on the grass.’ However, in order to affect a long term, substantial behaviour change, researchers believe that core beliefs need to be challengediii. To do this, they say, museum and heritage professionals need to engage with emotioniv.

In order to affect a long term, substantial behaviour change core beliefs need to be challenged. To do this, museum and heritage professionals need to engage with emotion.

I think that emotional engagements are where front of house staff in museums really come into their own. Unlike static interpretation, they have no word limit. They can enter into a two-way dialogue with visitors; storytelling, challenging and discussing in order to create a unique and bespoke visitor experience.

However, front-facing staff can’t speak to every visitor. So, how can museums and heritage sites use object display and exhibition design to make sure they are telling stories that touch everyone on an emotional level?

Museum objects and emotion

Firstly, let’s explore the objects themselves. In museums, we understand that the objects we look after have more than a functional role. They may have been created for a practical purpose. But they have also become symbolic, infused by the history and circumstances of their existence. We know that objects do not need to have aesthetic or financial value to be important or to create an emotional impact.

A display from George III: The Mind Behind the Myth featuring the King’s porcelain flute. Image: Historic Royal Palaces

For example, researcher Susan Pearce gives a comprehensive example of an object as a symbol in her article on a Waterloo coatee held at the National Army Museum.

Pearce explains that this object has various diverse meanings. This is because “each contemporary was capable of seeing the battle in a large number of ways. The jacket is correspondingly rich in symbolic possibilities.”v Each instance of significance and the emotional reaction it creates within the audience is, she argues, as important as the object itselfvi.

Does this symbolic power only come from objects that have scientific or historical significance? If the rise in social history or community sourced exhibitions is anything to go by, this can’t be the case.

The power of the familiar

Take The People’s Show at Walsall Museum in 1991. The exhibition, featuring local collectors and collections, was one of the museum’s most popular, attracting over 10,000 visitorsvii.

As researcher Cathy Mullen explained in her study of the exhibition, the power here was in the familiar:

nina simon santa cruz museum of art and history
Nina Simon

“The knowledge … is powerful because it maintains an intimate connection to the people by whom and for whom it exists. That knowledge has not been distanced from peoples lived experiences; nor has it been depersonalised by generalisation or abstraction.”viii

In her popular 2010 book The Participatory Museum, Nina Simon also writes of the emotional value of visitor contributions to museum object displaysix. She uses the example of the Science Museum exhibition Playing with Science, where visitors could bring in their own toys and contribute to the display.

Simon states: “These visitor contributions personalised the exhibition and helped non-contributing visitors connect to the objects on display by triggering their own toy memories.”x

Personal connections

Museum and heritage exhibitions often exploit personal, emotional connections to objects with the purpose of creating attitudinal or behavioural change. For example, in 2012, researcher Chia-Li Chen undertook a study of visitor book comments at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum.xi

Chen advanced a theory for the disproportionate number of comments centred on one particular object in the exhibition. This was a child’s charred lunchbox.

Entrance to Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum in Hiroshima, Japan
Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum in Hiroshima, Japan

“Students tend to associate closely with the museum’s lunchbox as it is an item familiar from daily life. It is no wonder that students experience shock when faced with a contorted lunchbox from another era.”xii Using familiarity to shock in this way creates a powerful emotion, which many visitors then express in the visitor book as a desire to end all wars.  

So, it seems that when museum and heritage practitioners explore the use of objects in their engagements with emotional impact, the key is often in the personal.

Exhibition Design and Emotion

However, museum objects are not the only method of engaging emotions within an exhibition. The decisions taken in the physical and intellectual design of exhibitions can also work to create a more emotionally engaging experience.

Object Positioning

Exhibition design can be as simple as considering the positioning of objects. In the display of musical instruments for example, whether we are at the player’s side or not determines how we understand the scene. Are we putting ourselves in the shoes of the performer or the audience?

Another design technique that has a high emotional impact is object massing. This is where the effect is made through the sheer number of objects on display. Examples of this would be the large collection of shoes from Holocaust victims at the Auschwitz Museum. Or, the installation of 51 nooses at Kingston Lacy as part of the National Trust’s Prejudice and Pride programme.  

Glasses at Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum
Pile of glasses at Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum

A research project at the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) has also shown the emotional power of object massing. During this project, researcher Corinne Kratz found that some of the most emotional visitor experiences took place at the exhibit where a large number of nooses are displayed to show the numbers of African American lynchings in the 20th century.xiii


Another method of increasing emotional engagement is interactivity. An example of this is an exhibition titled Worst-case Scenario: Survival Experience at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. In a 2020 article on this exhibition, Matthew Ramirez described the exhibition as highly interactive, involving interactive exhibits and even role play.xiv

“Prompting guests to be a ‘character’ and take on an ‘identity’ in an exhibition can be a really effective way to pull them into a world that you created and have an emotional experience first.”vx

Hidden Spaces Kew Palace
Exploring hidden spaces at Kew Palace: Image: Author’s Own

I have also noted the power of interactivity at my own site in the simplest ways. We like to show visitors hidden rooms and spaces at Kew Palace. I have often noted that visitors’ emotions and excitement are heightened when we invite visitors to uncover these spaces themselves rather than opening the door for them.

Sensory Engagement

Many practitioners have long been aware of the benefits of engaging all the audiences’ senses when it comes to designing emotional experiences. This also includes sound and smell.

Sheila Watson’s 2010 articlexvi on the Churchill Museum gives an example of the effective use of sound to create emotional engagement. In the museum, visitors hear Churchill’s voice giving his famous wartime speeches. This is effective, Watson suggests, because “as human beings we instinctively listen to human voices and we are experts in detecting emotions within them.”xvii

Last of the Vikings Jorvik
Jorvik Viking Centre

Elsewhere, museums use smell to evoke emotions, creating immersive environments or recalling old memories. UK examples of this are the Yorvik Viking Centre in York and Dennis Severs House in London. Here, smell helps audiences empathise with people of a different time and put themselves in their shoes.


George III: Mind Behind the Myth exhibition
George III: The Mind Behind the Myth. Image: Historic Royal Palaces 

We have already looked at the value of personal objects, above. However, personalisation techniques can be used elsewhere in exhibition design to increase emotional engagement. For example, many researchers have pointed at photography as a device to create a deeper personal connection between viewer and subject.

At The People’s Show at Walsall Museum photographs helped create a connection between visitors and collectors. Describing this, Mullen says “Through accompanying photographs and quotations from each collector, I was able to associate the objects with the faces of the collectors and their comments about collecting.”xviii

Personal stories can also help to forge connections and inspire change. For instance, at Kew Palace’s George III: The Mind Behind the Myth exhibition. Contemporary objects were displayed alongside the personal mental health stories of their lenders, written in the lender’s own words. This helped audiences connect to the stories and empathise with the people concerned, and often led to conversations about their own mental wellbeing.


Crowdsourcing is a trend that has also seen growing popularity in museum and heritage settings. The term refers to the process of inviting audiences to contribute to an exhibition or programme through the donation of objects, ideas or opinions. Recent examples include the Design Museum, London. Here, audiences could choose the objects on display for the introductory wall of the permanent design gallery.

One of my favourite crowdsourcing projects is the Museum of Broken Relationships (MOBR). MOBR was originally an art installation by ex-partners Olinka Vištica and Dražen Grubišić. After their break up, they displayed the detritus from their broken relationship (cuddly toys given as presents, concert tickets, etc.) as museum objects.

The concept has since grown into a permanent physical museum in Zagreb. It also has a satellite museum in Los Angeles and a travelling exhibition. Visitors can submit objects that represent their own breakups, as well as the story of what it means to them.

Museum Of Broken Relationships
Object at the travelling MOBR in Melbourne, 2019. Image: Author’s Own

The MOBR displays objects alongside descriptions written by donors, often with little cutting or editing. These stories can be extraordinarily powerful. Indeed, curator Ivana Družetić admits that the stories are the main driver behind object choice:

“Sometimes artefacts are very appealing, but it is primarily the story, the emotional message, that determines whether certain objects will be placed on illuminated stands or wall cases in the exhibition space.”xix

Visitor evaluation of MOBR shows that the background and experience of the audience can also vary the emotional impact. Visitors can feel relieved that they are not in the situation of the donors or that they are not alone in how they are feeling. Or a huge variety of other emotional responses.

The future of emotional engagement

So, there are many ways that object display and museum exhibition design can impact emotion. There is much that we can accomplish through design decisions such as object positioning and massing. In many cases, however, these examples have also meant opening up museums, heritage sites and collections. They have invited new perspectives in and allowed different experiences to live together.

It seems to me that the key to driving change – whether that change is attitudinal, behavioural or societal – is the centring of the personal experience and the shifting of emphasis from the museum to the visitor.

The key to driving change…is the centring of the personal experience and the shifting of emphasis from the museum to the visitor

Contemporary scientific perspectives suggest that emotion is not something that happens to people, but something people create for themselves. It seems therefore possible that through engaging with emotion, museum and heritage professionals are attempting to create experiences that are truly transformational; not just for audiences but for the heritage process itself.

It may be that at the museum and heritage sites of the future, ‘heritage’ will not be something that happens to people, but something they create for themselves.


iSmith, Laurajane and Campbell, Gary (2015) The Elephant in the Room: Heritage, Affect and Emotion in Logan W.; Craith, M. and Kockel, U. (ed.) A Companion to Heritage Studies, Wiley-Blackwell, New Jersey

iiSmith, Laurajane; Wetherall, Margaret and Campbell, Gary (ed.) (2018) Emotion, Affective Practices, and the Past in the Present, Routledge, Oxon, p.11

iiiKnudson, Douglas M., Cable, Ted T. and Beck, Larry (2003) Interpretation of Cultural and Natural Resources, Venture Publishing, Pennsylvania

ivUzzell, David and Ballantyne, Roy (2008) Heritage that Hurts: Interpretation in a Post-Modern World in Fairclough, Graham; Harrison, Rodney; Jameson Jr., John H. and Schofield, John (ed.) The Heritage Reader, Routledge, Oxon

vPearce, Susan M. (2010) Objects as Meaning; or Searching the Past in Interpreting Objects and Collections, Routledge, Oxon, p.25

viPearce (2010)

viiMullen, Cathy (2010) The People’s Show in Pearce, Susan M. (ed.) Interpreting Objects and Collections, Routledge, Oxon, p.289

viiiMullen (2010), p.290

ixSimon, Nina (2010) The Participatory Museum, Museum 2.0, California, p.204

xSimon (2010) p.210

xiChen, Chia-Li (2012) Representing and Interpreting Traumatic History: a Study of Visitor Comment Books at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum in Museum Management and Curatorship, 27:4, pp. 375-392

xiiChen, Chia-Li (2012), p.385

xiiiKratz, Corrine A. (2018) “Where did you cry”: Crafting Categories, Narratives and Affect through Exhibition Design in Kronos: Southern African Histories, No. 44, pp. 229-252

xivRamirez, Matthew (2020) Cravings Nourished: Museum Experiences that Elicit Emotions available here, accessed 27.02.2020

xvRamirez (2020)

xviWatson, Sheila (2010) Myth, Memory and the Senses in the Churchill Museum in Dudley, Sandra H. (2010) Museum Materialities: Objects, Engagements, Interpretations, Routledge, Oxon

xviiWatson (2010), p.212

xviiiMullen (2010), p.288

xixMiklošević, Željka and Babić, Darko (2018) Constructing Heritage Through Subjectivity: Museum of Broken Relationships in Smith, Laurajane; Wetherall, Margaret and Campbell, Gary (ed.) Emotion, Affective Practices, and the Past in the Present, Routledge, Oxon, p.77

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Rachel Mackay

Rachel Mackay manages Historic Royal Palaces at Kew, looking after four historic sites including Kew Palace. In 2020, she created The Recovery Room ( to share research and resources as the museum sector recovers from the impact of the pandemic. She was recently named one of Blooloop’s top 50 museum influencers.

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