Museums Pull Visitors Into Exhibits -- Literally

Those who think museums are full of dusty paintings, abstract sculptures and cracked old parchments can think again.

Visitors to America's museums these days can join the exhibits by being sworn in as president of the United States in Philadelphia, overhearing buzz about Nazis (search) in a pre-World War II (search) café in Los Angeles or singing to "American Idol" (search) judge Simon Cowell (search) in New York.

Museums with live-action exhibits are popping up all over. The new interactive displays go well beyond pushing a button at a kiosk, and instead make visitors part of the experience.

“We’re working all the time to make exhibits that people can participate in,” said museology expert and Lehigh University (search) art professor Ricardo Viera.

Philadelphia’s new National Constitution Center features 100 interactive and multimedia displays to help bring the nation's history to life.

One allows visitors to be sworn in as president. Patrons stand at a podium, right hand raised, and repeat the oath from a teleprompter. Another has guests play Supreme Court judge, weighing cases that pop up on a touch-screen while they sit on a replica of a high court bench and wear a justice’s robe.

“The whole trend in museums in the last decade is to tell a story, tell a narrative through interactive means,” said Constitution Center President and CEO Richard Stengel. “The trend is to involve the viewer.”

For a museum about the United States Constitution, that can be a tall order.

“When you have something like the Constitution, which people think of as a dry, boring document, it really helps to bring it to life and make it relevant to people’s lives,” Stengel said.

The Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, the Museum of Broadcast Communications in Chicago, the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., the Experience Music Project (EMP) museum in Seattle and the American Museum of Natural History in New York are all also heavily interactive.

At the Museum of Tolerance’s Holocaust section, for instance, each guest receives a photo passport card describing how a child’s life was affected by the Holocaust. Along the way the passport story is updated, and at the end the child’s fate is revealed. Visitors can also walk along a replica of a 1930s street in Berlin and hear café patrons talking about fears of a Nazi takeover.

“The most important thing is whatever object you’re exhibiting, but people have limitations on how much they can read [at the exhibit],” Viera said. “So you try to find other ways to get them more information.”

Meanwhile, Madame Tussauds — admittedly a loose definition of a museum — is beefing up its displays so visitors can do more than pose with the lifelike statues of celebrities.

At Tussauds' “American Idol” exhibit, which opened last month in New York and Las Vegas, singers can belt out a tune karaoke-style as a wax figure of Cowell looks on cynically.

At the end, he offers snippety comments like: “That was extraordinary. Unfortunately it was extraordinarily bad,” and sometimes even rolls his eyes.

“On the weekend, it’s packed with people," said Linda Estrada, a New York Tussauds employee who was controlling the display technology during a recent visit.

That day, students on a class trip ran excitedly up to the wax Simon — and some were brave enough to sing a song for the sourpuss judge.

“You feel like you’re really performing,” said Aliza, a 16-year-old high school junior from Long Island, N.Y., who did a rendition of a Celine Dion (search) song with a classmate, Aviva Aryeh, 16.

Other Tussauds displays have visitors “Shake It With Britney” and learn some of the pop star’s dance moves, do on-air forecasts with weatherman Al Roker (search) and make foul shots with basketball player Shaquille O’Neil (search).

Much like Tussauds has upped the ante, other museums have also recently stepped up their interactive displays.

At the American Museum of Natural History, the current Exploratorium exhibits give guests a chance to spin objects on a rotating disk and put their hands in clouds — all in the name of science.

“Looking at things behind glass or hanging on a wall is a very stimulating experience for some people, but it isn’t for everybody,” said Myles Gordon, the museum’s vice president for education. “You need to offer a variety of ways to engage with the material."

But offering participatory experiences at museums is also a way for them to stay afloat in a digital, Internet, cable-infused age.

“There’s a broader menu in order to keep competing with other forms of leisure activities,” said Viera. “It’s very difficult to attract the masses that museums need in order to make money … [or] fulfill their mission. It’s a matter of surviving.”