Does it matter whether a museum object or experience is real, and that visitors perceive it as such? How disappointed would visitors be if they learned that they had encountered a replica of the Mona Lisa or the Hope Diamond? Empirical visitor research suggests that it matters to museum visitors’ enjoyment and sense of connection with what the objects or experiences represent (science, history, art, etc.) whether an encountered object is real or authentic, but that visitors may care less about authenticity if they are placed in a mode in which they seek conceptual understanding. So, just what does that mean in terms of the realness or authenticity of virtual experiences or scientific representations? 

Considerable effort (and money) is placed on creating visualizations that are based on “real” data, whether they are planetarium shows, Hubble images, simulations of Mars surfaces, or interactive exhibits that allow visitors to explore complex ecological phenomena.  Preliminary studies all indicate that “real” or “authentic” might matter in the context of data that underlie scientific visualizations or representations, but that visitors may often not perceive realness and authenticity when they “should” or when we hypothesize that it might make a difference in the visitor experience.  We still need to explore the “value-added” of authenticity in general, and particularly as to the value of authenticity of data sources forscientific visualizations in informal science education.

To address these questions, Oregon State University’s Center for Research on Lifelong STEM Learning (led by Martin Storksdieckand Nancee Hunter), is partnering with the Exploratorium (led by Jennifer Frazier & Mary Miller) and the California Academy of Sciences (led by Ryan Wyatt) to conduct an exploratory study focused on the role of authenticity on visitor enjoyment, engagement and learning. We will use the framework for informal learning (six strands) proposed by the National Research Council (2009) as a starting point to better understand the specific role that authenticity plays in the visitor experience.  The main purpose of this initial work is to prepare for a larger study on the role of authentic data sources for free-choice learning in a variety of contexts (e.g., online encounters, digital games).

This research is supported by a grant from NASA. 


National Research Council (2009). Learning Science in Informal Environments: People, Places, and Pursuits. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.