Creative learning in museums #2

In the previous post, I explained the educational approach developed by CCE, an international UK-based NGO. CEE has set up creative partnerships with schools in several countries, to enhance the learning and creativity of young people. Attending a workshop lead by Paul Collard, head of CCE, a few weeks ago, I wondered how his approach can be relevant for museums. Here are my thoughts about it and hopefully, some parts of the answer.

The museums educational dead-end

As mentioned in the ICOM’s definition, museums have an educational mission aside from collections and research. Learning and personal enrichment is one reason often given by visitors for visiting a museum. Furthermore, visitors consider museum as a place of learning and so expect to learn something during their time there. Education is definitely an axiom for museums. However, the problem with schools, described in the previous post (transmissive approach based on learning knowledge and testing), also exists in museums.

Exhibition designers and museum educators tend to consider visitors as having a lack of knowledge that need to be filled and/or bad behaviours that need to be changed (especially about environmental topics such as climate change, waste, etc.). In a deficit model perspective, they follow a transmissive approach. As G. Black writes in The Engaging Museum. “the curator teaches, the visitors learn. In principles, the curator breaks the information to be conveyed down into small digestible pieces arranged in a logical order, and the visitor absorb the unquestioningly, in the order and manner intended” (p. 130). In this model, exhibitions are organised through a linear sequence with a beginning, an end and a hierarchy of content. They contain plenty of detailed information and tend to require a certain previous level of knowledge about the subject.They very often don’t reflect the diversity of visitors learning styles and offer a learning experience that suits only a small part of the public.

We all have experienced exhibitions like this. For a scientific exhibition, it is full of text on panels like the walls are covered with book pages or embedded in exhibits that are interactive in nothing but name. If it is an art exhibition, it is a series of art works without any context explained except esoteric texts written by a curator for fellow curators, so if you do not have previous knowledge about the artist, you completely miss the meaning (but you can of course just gaze at art works and enjoy it). We can say that such exhibitions are low functioning learning environments. They can match with a few visitors’ expectations but they exclude the vast majority of them. The very first reason why it can’t work for the vast majority of visitors is because visitors, not the museum, are in control. They choose what they want to look at, read and focus on. Most of the time, they do not follow the logical didactic paths content developers and exhibition designers have organised.

This approach still predominates in many museums as museum professionals tend to reproduce what has always been done because it is more convenient and fits well within the institution’s framework (you can easily describe objectives and assess exhibitions by measuring the knowledge visitor have learned). Another reason is that most museum professionals have been brought up in the traditional didactic approach of education, they have done well at school and university and then tend to reproduce what has worked for them. Traditional museum visitors have followed the same path. The transmissive approach to education suits them. As G. Black writes “curators continue to pontificate and compliant audience continue to accept the result” (p. 131). The same process occurs in the school system: teachers are some  of the few who did well at school and so  reproduce what suited them ( a process that isn’t suited to the vast majority of people). As the reproduction process of museum professionals and visitors is continuing, it may appear hopeless to change this but it is not! In fact, museums have numerous assets to offer to the creative learning experience.

Can museums be creative learning environments?

(Unfortunately) in many cases, most of the information in an exhibition is conveyed by texts. However, it is widely assumed that nobody reads the labels and visitors spend on average very little time engaging with one or other of the exhibits, to such an extent that one can wonder what’s the point of developing exhibition content. Sometimes, on the other hand, visitors really focus on an exhibit, read texts and engage with the content. In such a  case it appears that 1-  the topic is relevant for the visitor and matches with what they  are interested in and 2 – the exhibit is well designed. This is shown in the 2 dimensions of visitors experience proposed by  S. Weaver in her book Creating great visitor experiences (I wrote previous posts about it):

  • the internal dimension of the visitor experience which depend on his expectation, his learning style, his previous experience and knowledge, etc. all that make that the experience for a particular visitor different from the experience for another one.
  • the external dimension which is shaped by what the museum offers to the visitor to interact with.

We can also look at the three contexts that shape visitor experience according to J. Falk and L. Dierking in The Museum Experience Revisited: personal context, socio-cultural context, and physical context. Actually, if we look at the literature about visitors experience in museums and we keep in mind Paul Collard and CCE’s approach, we realise that the answers to the question “Can museums be creative learning environments?” are in front of your eyes.

Good news: the answer is “yes”. Let me explain why and how museums can be wonderful creative learning environments. As I go along, I will highlight the characteristics of high functioning environments according to CCE’s approach as mentioned in the previous post (see words in bold). After highlighting the museums inherent authenticity, I will focus on how museums can enhance visitor engagement. Following an educational perspective, engagement refers to the degree of attention, curiosity, interest, optimism, and passion visitors show when visiting a museum. Intellectual, physical, social and emotional engagements are four dimensions of visitors’ engagement.

Low and high funtioning learning environment in Creative Partnerships: changing young lives, CCE 2012

Low and high funtioning learning environment in Creative Partnerships: changing young lives, CCE 2012

The real world in display  

The principal characteristic of museums compared to other education and cultural institutions or media, is that they display real things that can (sometimes) be touched. Whether is a painting from the 16th century, a rock shaped by cave men, a stuffed animal or an interactive hands-on exhibit, museums provide authentic interactions with some parts of the heritage of humanity and its environment. In that perspective, museum are well positioned to provide high functioning learning environments. The authenticity of the activities is one key point in this approach. Museums also fit within the flexible time and mobile activities criteria (visitors move in the exhibition space at their own rhythm). However, displaying a series of objects in a space where visitors can get around is not enough. Museum should address other dimensions of visitors experience in order to engage visitors intellectually, physically, socially and emotionally. In CCE’s approach these four ways of engagement are needed to provide a feeling of wellbeing and confidence and help learners to perform.

Intellectual engagement

This aspect is probably the most developed in the museum literature. A lot has been written about visitors mental process and intellectual engagement when visiting an exhibition or attending another museum activity.

It is widely accepted, though not always put in practice, that museums should offer visitors the opportunity to be active instead of being the passive witnesses of a show. This assertion is particularly shared in the science museum and science centres field. For example, an active visitor would self manage the activities he undertakes through an exhibition. Here ‘active’ can be understood in an intellectual perspective as well as in the  physical perspective that we will discuss next.

If we look at the intellectual perspective, in a creative learning approach, a curator should challenge visitors instead of guiding them to a predetermined knowledge. Visitors should be able to explore by themselves and answer the questions they wonder about. In that perspective, constructivist approaches of learning, where the individual constructs his own understanding of the world, have been discussed a lot in the museum field. They have been put into practice in the hands-on approach developed by science centres. We should keep in mind there are limits to these approaches in the museum field: they do not apply to every field of knowledge, visitor motivation and level of interest need to be high, previous knowledge and appropriate learning skills are often required, and visitors don’t have enough time in their agenda to focus on such activities. That is not to say museums should give up constructivist approaches but designers should keep in mind these limits.

Without implementing a full constructivist learning experience, exhibition developers can encourage intellectual engagement by addressing topics relevant to the personal and socio-cultural context of visitors, with a focus on very concrete and pragmatic aspects for  a first time visit. Before delving into abstractive ideas that underlie an object, answers must be given to basic questions such as “What is this? What is it for? How is it made? etc.”  and not “How is this object related to the course of history?”.

An important point in the CCE approach (as explained in this report, p.14) is about choices and empowerment. In Creative Partnerships, learners are invited to make meaningful choices about a big project they are involved in. They take risks. The project has real and visible outputs and learners are fully empowered. Thus, the process of learning is highly visible. In a museum, considering the limits we have already mentioned about constructivist approaches, engaging visitors in an ambitious project with real and visible outputs at the same level as in Creative Partnerships may be difficult. However, exhibitions designers can keep this perspective in mind for some exhibits, where visitors have to build something or take part in a game for example.  

Physical engagement

Unlike a website you look at though a screen or a theatre where you sit, watch and listen, a museum is a space you move in. In that perspective visiting a museum and/or an exhibition is deeply different from other educational and cultural experiences. Here lies another asset of museums to offer creative learning environments as they can provide mobile activities through which visitor can move from one point to another. Movement may be more than walking. What about jumping, crawling, dancing, lying down, etc.? Museums can create lot of opportunities for kinesthetic learning, a learning modality in which learning takes place by carrying out physical activities, rather than listening to a lecture or watching demonstrations.

Jumping in Art Museum. Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art.

Jumping in Art Museum. Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art.

In regards to the physical space, I would highlight few basic points to promote physical engagement. First, comfort matters! If you’re cold or hot, if you are tired because you can’t sit down, if it is noisy, or if you have to carry your belongings because there is no restroom you just can’t enjoy your visit. If a visitor has a bad visit experience it creates bad memories,  which mean bad word of mouth, which means bad publicity. No museums manager wants that. S. Weaver explains well the importance of comfort in her book (you can also read my previous post about this).

Second, one must take into account group interactions when designing an exhibition. As we will see next, very few visitors come alone in museums. Visiting is very often a social activity with friends or family. Even if they almost always split during the visit, there are points in the exhibition where they would like to interact.

Galerie des enfants au MNHN

Children Gallery, MNMH, Paris. 

Third, visitors’ flows are a tricky matter. Bad circulation paths can really affect visitors’ experience. In an overcrowded exhibition, visitors tend to walk past exhibits and stop when they find an empty space. Beyond security reasons, museum can regulate how many visitors are in an exhibition in order preserve the visit experience. In conclusion about physical engagement, I would say there could never be too much emphasis on the importance of a careful design.

Social engagement

In museums, rare are the visitors who come alone. Most of the visitors come as a group (friends, family, school groups, etc.). You don’t need a long time observing visitors to realise that they discuss and interact with people they came with and others visitors but also with museum staff all throughout  their visit. These interactions deeply shape their experience: social interactions are what people remember for the longest time after a visit and the impacts are positive most of the time. So, it appears that museums exhibitions are great settings for social engagement as active and meaningful interactions with other people.

Most of the research about interactions among visitors have focused on families. We will also focus on that aspect even though families are not the only kind of groups that visit museums (we can also consider informal adults groups, school groups, etc.). Even if families motivations for visiting a museum can vary, sharing a moment and learning, or more precisely providing children an opportunity to learn, is a frequent one. As J. Falk and L. Dierking say in The Museum Experience Revisitedfamilies perceived museums as places in which to spend quality time and, ultimately, learn together, though this was often an implicit rather than explicit goal”. Conversations are central in families’ visits. Families’ members keep chatting together, asking each other questions, and referring to past experiences or elements from their daily life. These conversations actually begin before the visit and will continue after. Another important aspect is the role of facilitator parents play toward the children. They give explanations, read texts (especially if the child is too young to know how to read), answer kids’ questions, and make connections with prior experience, etc. in order to enhance learning. However, learning is not the only goal. For parents, visiting museums can also be a way to help children’s personal development  and please them. Finally, the museum is an environment less familiar than school or home. In that context, the visit is an opportunity to discover each other and it is part of the family construction.

Museums can lean on these interactions to reinforce social engagement within the visit and then enhance learning and more broadly the visitors’ experience. Museums can follow a coeducation approach by encouraging interactions between children and adults for a better learning experience. Facing an exhibit, each member of the family view and wonder something different and in interacting with the other, contribute to building a common meaning combined with  knowledge and competencies. Most of the time, children manipulate an exhibit when parents read explanations about it. Texts helps parents  to ask questions of  the children and draw their attention to specific aspects. It empowers parents in their facilitator role and makes them more confident toward their children. It is particularly important for some visitors who could feel that they don’t have enough knowledge to help their children. So it can help to enhance global inclusiveness.

Until now we have considered social engagement as active and meaningful interactions with other people. It can also refer to engagement towards the museum as an institution or even broadly, to engagement within society. I won’t discuss these aspects in this post which is already too long.

Emotional engagement

In a way, museums seem too emotionless. As Dr. Julian Raby says, our current museum culture emerges out of enlightenment ideals and so museums operate in a “veil of objectivity and through strategies of neutrality”. As a consequence, museums tend to be passionless. Texts are as neutral as possible (if neutrality does exist), the white cube has become the art museums paradigm and humour is a taboo.

However, emotions facilitate memory, enhance motivation and so improve learning. Besides, in our world today, it all tends to be about experiences with sensation and emotions. Marketing specialists have understood that point and applied it for a long time. How can museum promote emotion to enhance learning and provide a great visitor experience? Here are few lines of thought.

To create emotion, one can appeal to sensations. As S. Weaver recommends, great visitor experiences rely on the 5 senses (you can read more about it here, in French). Museums can also follow theatre and cinema, as fiction and non-fiction, to tell stories. Jasper Visser points on a blog post that telling stories is old as the hills. However, storytelling is a hot topic among museum professionals as museums experiment with new approaches (see here and there). Combining sensation and storytelling, museums can provide immersive experiences. A lot has been told and written about immersion in museums from blog posts to research papers. It would be too long to develop this topic here but immersion is definitely an asset for museums to provide creative learning environments. As mentioned at the beginning of this post, the strongest asset of museums is dealing with real objects and  also providing authentic active experience. The emotional engagement is huge when you really do something instead of being told how it is to do it. That is the case at the fossil lab of The Museum of the Earth of Ithaca (NY, USA) where visitors can look for fossils and keep it if they find one as Margaret Middleton reports on her blog. Here the excitement of making a discovery is a great emotional driver to engage with palaeontology. Finally I would also mention games as a way to enhance emotional engagement. I should write an entire blog post about this. In the meantime, you can read Jasper Visser’s thoughts about game, learning and museums.

To sum up about emotional engagement I would cite  Dr. Julian Raby again: “because learning will be incited, exploration encouraged, when we engage emotions, let us move from education as an obligation, to learning as a thrill”.

Few references

References in English

John H. Falk and Lynn D. Dierking (2012) The Museum Experience Revisited,, Left Coast press
Stephanie Weaver (2007) Creating Great Visitor Experiences. A Guide for Museums, Parks, Zoos, Gardens & Libraries, Left Coast press.
Graham Black (2005) The Engaging Museum, developing museums for visitors involvement, Routledge.
Georges E. Hein (1999) Learning in the Museum, Routledge.

References in French

Callon, M. (1999) “Des différentes formes de démocratie techniques” in Les cahiers de la sécurité intérieure, vol. 38, pp. 3-54
A. Jonchery & S. Biraud (2014) “Musées en famille, familles au musée” in Informations sociales, 181, p.86-95
Jack Guichard (1998) “Adapter les muséologie aux enfants: développer la coéducation entre les visiteurs” in La révolution dans la muséologie des sciences, B. Schiele, E. Koster (Ed.) pp. 224-228.

One thought on “Creative learning in museums #2

  1. Precise, well argued and true. I very much enjoyed reading it.

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