I've noticed two fundamentally different approaches to visitor profiles in exhibitions:
- internal profiles, in which visitors create a profile that in some way reflects who they are
- external profiles, in which visitors adopt profiles for historical or fictitious characters
- In Heroes, visitors created profiles by picking a character from Greek mythology with whom they self-identified. Visitors could take an optional personality quiz at kiosks near the exhibition entrance to determine which of eight Greek heroes, gods, or monsters they were most like. The kiosks prompted visitors to take a personalized tag and ID card from bins nearby for “their” hero. The cards provided more information about the heroes and connected them to specific artifacts in the exhibition. Visitors could follow their heroes through Heroes by looking for his/her special icon on the wall. Staff reported that the profiles were popular and that many visitors wore their tags with pride, talking with friends and strangers about their heroes.
- In Titanic, visitors are given "boarding passes" that tell the beginning of a story of a real person who traveled on the Titanic. They cannot find out the final fate of their boarding pass personae until the end of the exhibit. This external profile technique was also used at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum when it first opened to let visitors connect with the stories of particular people affected by the Holocaust. Titanic also includes costumed historical characters, which accentuates the "otherness" of the experience.
Internal profiles let visitors get deeper into their own skin, whereas external profiles let them try on someone else's. From a social perspective, both can prompt new discussions. In the case of internal profiles, the conversation tends to be self-focused: What makes me an Athena and you a Heracles? For external profiles, the conversation is other-focused: Why did my person survive the shipwreck but not yours?
There are some profile systems that bridge internal and external identity to help visitors imagine themselves in historical or potential scenarios. Several exhibitions have required visitors to use internal profiles to confront the ugly realities of segregation and profiling. At the Apartheid Museum, visitors are given tickets that reflect their race as perceived by the admissions staff (white or non-white) and are required to enter the museum through separate gates (and different entry exhibits) based on their race. While this kind of profile, like that in Heroes, is internal, it does not allow visitors to present an aspirational version of themselves. Instead, it forces visitors down deterministic paths based on racial identity, and visitors ask themselves: What would it have been like for me to live under apartheid?
Is one of these profile types "better" than the others? I don't think so. But if you are trying to design a profile experience for a particular kind of social reaction, you may want to think about which type is most relevant to your goals. Do you want visitors to learn more about themselves through your exhibition? Or do you want them to connect more deeply with someone else?