Museum learning

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  • DSchneider believes that there is no clear definition of Museum learning (or museum education), but it usually refers to a kind of informal learning which is not teacher mediated.
  • Ultimately, museum learning is about changing as a person: how well a visit inspires and stimulates people into wanting to know more, as well as changing how they see themselves and their world both as an individual and as part of a community (Kelly & Gordon, 2002, p.161).
  • In summary, museum learning is "messy" and complex and studying it is challenging and requires a range of responses. (Kelly 2002)

Museum learning also can be tied to a different understanding museums have of their role which in turn may have been been triggered by funding problems, lack of visitors etc. : “Taken as a whole, museum collections and exhibition materials represent the world's natural and cultural common wealth. As stewards of that wealth, museums are compelled to advance an understanding of all natural forms and of the human experience. It is incumbent on museums to be resources for humankind and in all their activities to foster an informed appreciation of the rich and diverse world we have inherited.” (American Association of Museums)

See also: Virtual museum

Motivations for museum learning research

“Learning is a key issue for museums to address. Museums are positioning themselves in the market as places for learning and, at the same time, research has shown that people visit museums to learn.” (Lynda Kelly, AMARC, retrieved 15:31, 17 July 2006 (MEST)).

There are several academic research teams that specialize in museum learning, e.g. LRDS's Learning in Museums group:

LRDC's museum initiatives are grounded in the conviction that informal learning environments are increasingly important venues for real learning. We are interested in museums and other out-of-school environments as locations where children have some of their first encounters with discipline-specific learning, where students and teachers can extend formal activity, and where adults can pursue life-long learning in the disciplines.

(Learning in Museums and Beyond, retrieved 15:31, 17 July 2006 (MEST)).

According to Knutson and Crowley (2005:4), {{quotation | providing credible empirical evidence about museum learning experience is not easy. “But to understand learning in museums, one must also think through the broader implications of the museum environment. Visitors do not necessarily come to a museum to learn. And museums do not solely exist to teach. Museums are cultural organizations that house research collections, that represent cultural beliefs and that offer visitors a rich social, leisure time experience where learning of museumsponsored content may be an outcome. Therefore we need a theory of learning that is able to account for the ways in which exhibit supported learning is taken up by visitors within the context of their own personal agendas and within the context of their own prior experiences. To directly asses the factoids gained by visiting an exhibition, seriously misses the points and undervalues the more affective, cultural and social outcomes that come from visiting a museum.”

The same authors (p. 4-5) give three good reasons on what museums have to offer as learning laboratories.

  • First, museums are filled with people; people who are potential research subjects. This may sound like a superficial observation but in fact, the access to research subjects is a major draw for researchers.
  • Second, museums are learning environments with complex tasks. The museum provides a naturalistic setting in which to watch parents and children working together, and exploring exhibit topics of mutual interest.
  • Third, museums are filled with staff who develop new learning environments and can work in partnership with researchers to think through complex issues about learning and knowledge

Pedagogical strategies

Museum learning theories (as far as we can tell ...) are usually grounded in some variant of constructivist, [[socio-constructivism | socio-constructivist] or situated learning theory. Here is a quotation from Kelly's (2002) review of the literature and that put forward some sociocultural arguments:

[...] Schauble et al (1997), argue for a sociocultural approach as an appropriate theoretical framework in museum learning research as it accounts for meanings made within a social context, rather than facts learned, focussing on the interplay between `... individuals acting in social contexts and the mediators - including tools, talk, activity structures, signs and symbol systems - that are employed in those contexts´ (p.4). In a similar vein, Matusov & Rogoff (1995) stated that: `Museums, as educational institutions, provide opportunities for people to bridge different sociocultural practices and, through this process, to bridge different institutions and communities´ (p.101). [...]

Paris (1997a; 1997b) outlined the way that sociocultural views of learning could be integrated into a theory of museum learning. He argued that in order to facilitate meaningful learning, museums need to create environments that encourage exploration and enable meaning to be constructed through choice, challenge, control and collaboration. This leads to self-discovery, pride in achievements and, ultimately, learning, where visitors .... may learn more about themselves and their experiences through reflection (1997a, p.23).

Kelly (2002), from a synthesis of the literature and studies conducted to date, concludes that museum learning experiences are enhanced through:

  1. a good understanding of the learner's prior knowledge, experiences and interests through a rigorous program of front-end evaluation
  2. self-direction and choice in interpretive styles and levels of information provided
  3. opportunities to satisfy intrinsic motivation through immersive, flow and deep learning experiences
  4. the opportunity for social learning through designing for conversation and group activity
  5. objects and other real material to actively use and manipulate
  6. mediation through knowledgeable others who facilitate discussion and sharing of opinions and understandings
  7. many layers of content
  8. opportunities to engage in critical thinking and questioning
  9. real-life experiences
  10. relevance through making explicit why it is important to know something.

Object-based learning

One strategy often used in museums is object-based learning. Object-based learning can be incorporated into a variety of activities, but all have the same basic theory in common: by exploring material culture (art, artifacts, specimens, documents, etc.), people can learn about the object and its relationship to other objects, people, eras and ideas. This method of learning enables the participant to look directly at an object, be it a sculpture or painting, artifact or advertisement, primary document or ritual object, and, using a myriad of questions, discover its role and importance in our world - past, present and future. Objects are used to initiate discussion, as well as make connections to the learner's own experiences.

(What is object-based learning?, Museum learning initiative, retrieved 15:31, 17 July 2006 (MEST))

The experience museum

BRC Imagination Arts (retrieved 15:31, 17 July 2006 (MEST)), a design company contrasts old-style museum with experience-based museums:

  • Old-style museums featuring cold stuff in glass boxes and stale rooms are of the 20th Century. The museums of the past are based on a definition from the past -- Webster's dictionary defines a museum as a building that houses and displays a collection, traditionally authentic artifacts and items that represent the life, times and history of a given person, event or era.
  • Today's 21st Century public is increasingly eager for experiences rather than static objects. They want drama, immersion, adventure and involvement. A collection of authentic objects may be a traditional curator's focus, but with the exception of art galleries, an increasing number of guests are responding enthusiastically to artifacts, if they come with an adventure that tells a compelling and educational story.



  • The Journal of Museum Education is “the premier publication promoting and reporting on theory, training, and practice in the museum education field. Journal articles, written by museum, education, and research professionals, explore such relevant topics as learning theory; visitor evaluation; teaching strategies for art, science, and history museums; and the responsibilities of museums as public institutions.”
  • Ariadne, Ariadne is a Web magazine for information professionals in archives, libraries and museums in all sectors. Since its inception in January 1996 it has attempted to keep the busy practitioner abreast of current digital library initiatives as well as technological developments further afield (open acess).


  •, American Association of Museums, Standing Professional Committee on Education.
  • ED 831 Reading & Reference List, Jay L. Lemke, School of Education, Department of Educational Studies, at the University of Michigan (retrieved 12:28, 17 July 2006 (MEST))
  • Informal science “The comprehensive resource for the latest research and techniques to encourage the learning of science in everyday life.”. Large database, e.g. contains 500 referemces on topic "museum learning". Aliased from
  • UPCLOSE, University of Pittsburgh Center for Learning in Out-of-School Environments.


  • American Association of Museums (2000), Museum Education Principles and Standards, PDF. Also at International Zoo Educators Association HTML
  • Ash, D. & Wells, G. (in press ??). Dialogic inquiry in classroom and museum: Actions, tools and talk. To appear in Learning in places: The informal education reader. UK: Peter Lang Publishers.
  • Ash, D. & Klein, K. (2000). Inquiry in the informal learning environment, In .Teaching and Learning in an inquiry-based classroom (Eds.) J. Minstrell & E. Van Zee: AAAS, 216-240.
  • Crowley, K. & Jacobs, M. (2002). Islands of expertise and the development of family scientific literacy. In G. Leinhardt, K. Crowley, & K. Knutson (Eds.) Learning conversations in museums. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. PDF
  • Eberbach, C. & Crowley, K. (2005). From living to virtual: Learning from museum objects. Curator (48)3, 317-338.
  • Léonie J. Rennie & David J. Johnston (2004). The nature of learning and its implications for research on learning from museums, Science Education Supplement: In Principle, In Practice: Perspectives on a Decade of Museum Learning Research (1994-2004), (88), S4-S16.
  • Hawkings, Roy (2004), Learning with Digital Technologies in Museums, Science Centres and Galleries, Futurelab SERIES, Report 9. HTML
  • Hein, George, E. (1991). Constructivist Learning Theory, The Museum and the Needs of People, CECA (International Committee of Museum Educators) Conference, Jerusalem Israel, 15-22 October 1991 HTML
  • Kelly, Lynda (2002), What is learning ... and why do museums need to do something about it ?, Paper presented at Why Learning? Seminar, Australian Museum/University of Technology Sydney, 22 November 2002 PDF
  • Kelly, L., & Gordon, P. (2002). Developing a Community of Practice: Museums and Reconciliation in Australia. In R. Sandell (Ed.), Museums, Society, Inequality (pp. 153-174). London: Routledge.
  • Kirsten M. Ellenbogen, Jessica J. Luke, & Lynn D. Dierking (2004). Family learning research in museums: An emerging disciplinary matrix?. Science Education Supplement: In Principle, In Practice: Perspectives on a Decade of Museum Learning Research (1994-2004), (88) S48-S58.
  • Knutson, K. & Crowley, K. (2005). Museum as learning laboratory: Developing and using a practical theory of informal learning. Hand to Hand. 18(4), pp. 4-5. PDF
  • Matusov, E., & Rogoff, B. (1995). Evidence of Development from People's Participation in Communities of Learners. In J. Falk & L. Dierking (Eds.), Public Institutions for Personal Learning (pp. 97-104). Washington: American Association of Museums.
  • Nourbakhsh, I., Hamner, E., Bernstein, D., Crowley, K., Ayoob, E., Lotter, M. et al. The Personal Exploration Rover: Educational assessment of a robotic exhibit for informal learning venues. International Journal of Engineering Education: Special Issue on Robotics Education. PDF
  • Paris, S. (1997). Situated motivation and informal learning. Journal of Museum Education. 22 (213) pp 22-26.
  • Paris, S. (1997a). Understanding the Visitor Experience: Theory and Practice, Part 1 (Vol. 22): Journal of Museum Education.
  • Paris, S. (1997b). Understanding the Visitor Experience: Theory and Practice, Part 2 (Vol. 23): Journal of Museum Education
  • Schauble, L., Leinhardt, G., & Martin, L. (1997). A Framework for Organising a Cumulative Research Agenda in Informal Learning Contexts. In S. Paris (Ed.), Understanding the Visitor Experience: Theory and Practice, Part 1, Journal of Museum Education (Vol. 22, pp. 3-8). Washington: Museum Education Roundtable.