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Learning, Education, and Public Programs in Museums and Galleries

  1. John Reeve,
  2. Vicky Woollard

Published Online: 5 DEC 2013

DOI: 10.1002/9781118829059.wbihms989

The International Handbooks of Museum Studies

How to Cite

Reeve, J. and Woollard, V. 2013. Learning, Education, and Public Programs in Museums and Galleries. The International Handbooks of Museum Studies. 1–24.

Publication History

  1. Published Online: 5 DEC 2013

In the past, curatorial authority, scholarship and professional judgment have been the drivers of the museum; today the driving position is shared with for example … the educator … .

(Hooper-Greenhill, 2000: 28)

The role and place of learning in museums has been transformed in the past 20 years not only, though perhaps more distinctively, in the United Kingdom and the United States, but also through a shared global community of practice from Brazil to Japan. These transformations are both generic, in museological practice, and specific to local cultures and conditions. In many places learning has moved “from margin to core” (see Hooper-Greenhill, 2007, 2000; Woollard, 1998) and is now acknowledged as a central part of what a museum or gallery is. Leading progressive directors like Sir Nicholas Serota of Tate have been emphatic supporters of this wider ambition for cultural learning: “Cultural learning feeds every part of our being – our minds, our imagination and our values” (Serota, quoted in Rogers, 2009: 4).

So we ask why and to what extent expectations for museum learning have changed, whether by policy-makers, museums, or their users. We review the last 20 years to find what have been the factors for change and how they have shaped current practice. Through examples from a range of museums and galleries worldwide we will explore the possible characteristics of successful museum and gallery learning programs: centrally placed in museum management and policy; audience-centered; reciprocally and responsively involved in partnerships with stakeholders at many levels; responding to diverse needs of learners varied in appetites, learning styles, age, income, and ability; strategic in allocating resources and in planning programs; with proper facilities for creative and active learning on site; using technologies and media creatively as well as other skills. The now extensive literature on museums and learning from many perspectives is itself an indication of a revolution in theory, discourse, and practice.

However, we recognize that, writing in 2013, we are now in a difficult period economically and politically, where there can be no presumptions as to the availability of financial support and the place culture activities will have in the public's conscience. To what extent will more active audience participation and collaboration reduce the need for professional museum and gallery educators? Will the requirement for assessing programs for their measurable outcomes continue to obscure the quality of their content and delivery?

The Core of Museum and Gallery Learning

  1. Top of page
  2. The Core of Museum and Gallery Learning
  3. Improving the UK Framework for Museum Learning
  4. A Wider Perspective
  5. Programming for Leisure and Learning
  6. Evaluation and Research
  7. A Balancing Act
  8. Conclusions: A Sustainable Future?
  9. Acknowledgments
  10. References
  11. Further Reading

Learning is at the heart of museums, libraries and archives:

Learning is a process of active engagement with experience. It is what people do when they want to make sense of the world. It may involve the development or deepening of skills, knowledge, understanding, awareness, values, ideas and feelings, or an increase in the capacity to reflect. Effective learning leads to change, development and the desire to learn more.

(Museums, Libraries, and Archives Council, 2013)

Chandler Screven observed that museum learning is “self-paced, self-directed, non-linear and visually oriented” (1986). Museum and gallery learning also thrives where culture and learning are not just the preserve of the privileged, where the curriculum is not rigid and creativity is actively encouraged, where lifelong learning is an established concept in an ageing society, and where experiment and reflection are a normal part of professional life. Not surprisingly it does not therefore flourish in many or even most parts of the world and is not necessarily secure even where it does. It suffers from changes of director, direction, and government, from too much interference and indifference. So it needs sustained partners, hard evidence of impact and success, commitment, and political vision. It requires flair, energy, and an unusually broad range of skills from its practitioners, possibly more varied than any other part of the profession. They include fundraising, policy-making, research, understanding of learning and cultural theory, political skills, communication skills, and immense patience.

In the past 20 years there has been a major change in the context for museum learning across all continents. Anna Cutler (2010) of Tate has summarized from a UK perspective the nature of current shifts in practice as:

  • From the passive to participative.
  • From standardized delivery to personalization.
  • From the didactic to co-learning.
  • From knowledge acquisition to knowledge application.
  • From a single authorial voice to plural voices.
  • From private knowledge to public access.

This paradigm shift can be seen in many museum and learning cultures. To take a recent example, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art (Kansas City) in 2011 appointed Judith M. Koke as the new director of education and interpretive programs. She argued for the museum to move from being a teaching institution to become more of a learning institution, embracing different learning styles and approaches to art. This reflects a distinction that is now often made between education (seen as having a modernist emphasis on delivering preordained agendas in structured groups) and learning (a postmodernist emphasis on individual and social meaning making and more informal personalized activity and experience). In reality it is of course much more complex than that, for example “education” is still commonly used in museum terminology (the post of director of education and curator of public practice at the Walker Art Center). See Figure 1 as an example of the range of experiences both in terms of formal education and participative learning.

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Figure 1. Formal education versus learning through participation – the Victorian classroom and teacher at the Ragged School Museum, London.

Photographer: Anna Robertson © Ragged School Museum Trust.

Modernism in its wider context certainly enforced the authority not only of the curator but the educator, favoring more deferential, passive, and bounded learning through the didactic exhibit, the lecture by an expert, the worksheet, and the guidebook. By controlling access, inclusion, responses and behaviors when working with selected, organized groups, staff can and do offer limited differentiation of format or media and take little or no account of diverse appetites and learning styles, thus often reinforcing exclusivity as cultural and social capital for the already privileged. Postmodernism (especially “constructivist” learning theory) advocates active learning, engagement, personalized meaning making, facilitation, and experience, sharing or undermining the authority of the museum voice in interpretation and learning (Hein, 1998, 2011; Hooper-Greenhill, 1991, 2000, 2007; Falk and Dierking, 2000, 2007, 2011) with access and inclusion as prerequisites to the now accepted current practice of many museums and galleries.

Modernist practices have however often prevailed worldwide with guides and teachers still projecting received opinions with adult tours, especially for “tourists” who are somehow not seen as “serious” learners like other people. In the United States, docents (trained but often volunteers) and staff instructors direct gallery learning for educational groups, but now more often with a discussion rather than lecture or set tour format, problematizing and opening up rather than closing down debate (Burnham and Kai-Kee, 2011; Reeve, 2006). The same practice might be seen (despite high levels of tourists and other adults) with the paid equivalent of US docents working with schools and other groups at the National Gallery in London. This discursive approach combined with practical art making as a form of interpretation is disseminated nationwide through the “Take one Picture” project from the National Gallery (http://www.takeonepicture.org/). Another example involving debate, drama, role play and art is the Great British Art Debate's collaborative strategy for developing self-help gallery learning and teaching techniques, instigated by Tate in London (http://greatbritishartdebate.tate.org.uk/). In many museums in whatever country, the quantity of visitors and the limitations of educational provision mean it is not possible to offer a teaching session of this quality or indeed at all for most groups. Teachers, families, and adults are therefore expected to operate on their own, with museum or gallery resources (e.g. audio-tours and trails) to help them.

American science centers (e.g. the Exploratorium) and children's museums (see Reeve, 2006; Lord, 2007: 54–61, on ZOOM in Vienna) were highly influential on museum learning practice and programming worldwide. In terms of pedagogy the Getty's DBAE (discipline-based art education) program was also influential on art teacher and art gallery education practice from the 1980s and was especially welcome for its embrace of world art, but was seen as too dogmatic and constricting (Burnham and Kai-Kee, 2011: 43). In the United Kingdom (with a national curriculum and a more coordinated national museum and gallery framework) a different structure has evolved, balancing the studio and the art history agenda in schools and galleries as “critical studies” in the curriculum (cf. Taylor, 2006). In the new reactionary climate of 2010s Britain, art gallery education has a renewed role, as in the United States, of compensating for what is increasingly missing or undervalued in the “mainstream” curriculum, with implications for provision in later lifelong learning also (cf. Rogers, 2009; Bellamy and Oppenheim, 2009).

US art gallery educators Rika Burnham and Elliott Kai-Kee (2011) have reviewed teaching in the art museum and its transition from a modernist model of imparting and sharing information to a more constructivist one of encouraging perception, enhancing experience and even performance as part of the gallery visit. One critic observed of this latter kind of practice: “we could see that children were enjoying dancing in the gallery – but were they learning anything?” (Burnham and Kai-Kee, 2011: 38). Burnham however stresses shared experience:

museum teachers must be prepared to give up full control of the shared interpretive process … Museum instructors must always be able to step back, to step aside, or to step beyond the unfolding dialogue … . Adopt the various roles of: Player (being drawn in, absorbed, swept up just as students are), Mover, Follower, Bystander, Opposer … [t]o serve the needs of each group … .

(Burnham and Kai-Kee, 2011: 131–132)

For some the postmodern pendulum has swung too far. Veteran US gallery educator Danielle Rice critiqued in particular the approach of “visual thinking strategists” like Philip Yenawine as too relativistic, for whom all meanings are equally relevant. We should not, in her view “abdicate the responsibility of actually teaching visitors about the broader, consensual understandings that constitute an informed perspective” (see also Hooper-Greenhill, 2000: 119). This is a profound issue at the heart of museum and gallery practice. Put crudely it is whether to facilitate or to direct; how to balance modernist “curatorial” agendas, possibly disguised as exciting and accessible when they are not, with postmodernist social and educational ones. The postmodernist approach is also one of the factors in reshaping the distinctive contribution of the educator in museums and galleries: curators and freelance lecturers can lecture, freelance workshop leaders can facilitate, so core learning staff become therefore program managers, learning consultants, and audience advocates.

Sometimes modernist directives may replace more experimental and distinctive approaches even now, as a result of political or directorial change. The national curriculum transformed museum use by schools in the United Kingdom from the 1980s (Reeve, 1999). But one consequence of mirroring national and local curricula in museums and galleries worldwide is the danger of becoming (or remaining) just another classroom. Distinctive pedagogies have therefore developed in order not to be just another kind of schooling (as often happened in the modernist museum) but instead adopting what Ivan Illich calls “de-schooled” approaches, informal and personalized. For another influential theorist, the Brazilian Paulo Freire, education is about empowering and liberating rather than oppression by an established pedagogy of power and deference. In much current practice, the emphasis is not on conveying bodies of knowledge but on understanding concepts and processes, and making meaning (Hein, 1998, 2011; Hooper-Greenhill, 2007), and above all on the museum and gallery experience as enhancing existing knowledge and understanding and motivating through other stimuli. Artists, actors, storytellers, dancers, designers may all contribute along with curators and other members of staff, and of course volunteers, to help create a poly-vocal experience. A key element is haptic learning (Pye, 2008), as seen in handling sessions for children and adults, including offsite handling sessions, for example in hospitals and prisons (Figure 2). This is part of the key process of engaging as many of the senses as possible, mainly through an awareness of differing learning styles, and multiple intelligences as theorized by Howard Gardner (1993).

figure

Figure 2. Two participants examining a traditional coffee pot as a part of the Asian Women's Documenting the Home project at the Geffrye Museum, London.

Photographer: Olivia Hemingway © Olivia Hemingway/Geffrye Museum

Much of the core literature on learning in museums and galleries is influenced by either art education and theory (e.g. Burnham and Kai-Kee, 2011; Cutler, 2010; Xanthoudaki, Tickle, and Sekules, 2003; Taylor, 2006) or science education (such as Falk and Dierking, 2000, 2011; Falk, Dierking, and Foutz, 2007; Miles et al., 1988). The culture of the science museum and science center has been more interactive but also often more didactic and output driven (however disguised) with a strong mission for the public understanding of science. Science centers are often much more successful in engaging family audiences where other kinds of museum and gallery do not. Most areas of the curriculum can be enlivened and illuminated by a museum or gallery visit or resource (Hooper-Greenhill, 1991, 2007). Thus over time, a fruitful relationship has developed between subject-specific disciplines and museum and gallery practice, for example in history and religious education (see Reeve, 2012). The museum and gallery experience can often transcend the boundaries of the narrower curriculum, as well as providing many opportunities to apply and reconsider subject knowledge and to engage empathetically (Hooper-Greenhill, 2007).

The biggest achievement of museums over the past two decades is the resurgence of their role in learning.

(Department of Culture, Media, and Sport, 2006: 7)

Museum learning professionals and responsive users have long understood the value of the museum experience: what was needed was greater investment in provision, sharper evidence of impact, with a wider understanding of informal learning and the audiences that benefited from it. From the early 1990s, the UK government began to acknowledge this in reports that identified the strength of museums as being their educational role. But this role only became explicit through providing education services for schools tailored to the new national curriculum, attracting greatly increased numbers of schoolchildren and teachers with high satisfaction rates, both necessary to legitimize practice (Hooper-Greenhill, 2007). Museum learning professionals, not satisfied with this narrow focus on schools, wanted recognition for their work with a variety of other audiences. Hooper-Greenhill in 1991 argued that audience development required improvements in management structures, through developing comprehensive strategic planning across and through all departments.

Such corporate planning and strategic thinking were also the focus for governments. Conservative and Labour governments, from the early 1990s to 2009, were keen for museums to generate other forms of income and be less reliant on state subsidy. This new funding came principally through increased visitor numbers and spending, not least through newly introduced admission charges to many national institutions. A paying public expected a better service so greater attention was paid to engaging audiences, to physical and intellectual access, and to enhancing the appearance and interpretation of displays. Science museums took the lead not least in developing better “customer care” and family-focused exhibits and programming (Lang, Reeve, and Woollard, 2006; Miles et al., 1988). To implement such policies a national structure was needed as well as new funding mechanisms, notably the National Lottery which has helped fund expansion in museum and heritage learning through the Heritage Lottery Fund. Government and museum learning agendas began to converge, but with strings attached.

Just as Excellence and Equity provided an agenda for museum learning's role to change in the United States (AAM, 1992) so in the United Kingdom did David Anderson's influential report A Common Wealth (Anderson, 1999; summary in Lang, Reeve, and Woollard, 2006: appendix 3). The recommendations were: to place education centrally in the mission of a museum or gallery with full endorsement at the highest level; to have a more holistic understanding of how a museum contributes to a visitor's learning; a more skilled profession; and systematic research and evaluation on the delivery and impact of museum learning. The report supported and projected the mantra of New Labour in 1997 “Education, Education, Education” and so Anderson's report became the basis of government policy. Equally influential was Professor Ken Robinson who argued in his report All Our Futures (NACCCE, 1999) that young people would have to deal with an increasingly complex and diverse society, and that cultural education could make an essential contribution to this. Thus in the government's mind museums, libraries, archives, and heritage along with the other cultural industries would not only support the education agenda but also play a part in the government's cross-departmental strategy for combating social exclusion by widening access to cultural activities (Lang, Reeve, and Woollard, 2006: chapter 3). Therefore cultural learning was to be at the heart of social change, but to be assured of government funding it needed to demonstrate it was able to deliver this effectively.

By 2006 the number of visits by non-traditional audiences had increased by 6.8 percent since 2002/3 and major regional museums had attracted over 900,000 new non-traditional users. These figures reflected government investment through the Museums, Libraries, and Archives Council (MLA) and its scheme Renaissance in the Regions in particular (Hooper-Greenhill, 2007: 72). Targeted “non-traditional” audiences included asylum seekers, ethnic minorities, people on low income and the “working class” (though no longer referred to as that), older people, families, young people often socially excluded through being homeless or excluded from mainstream education, and also prisoners and ex-offenders. However the main recipients as usual were schoolchildren as the key performance indicator with the largest proportion of funding, and with the focus on the academic benefits that museum visits could make to exam results (see Hooper-Greenhill, 2007: 15–30).

Hence learning gradually permeated many areas of British culture, including heritage sites, archives and cathedrals, museums, and galleries. If you compare early and late works by Eilean Hooper-Greenhill, you see at once how much has changed between 1991 and 2007 in terms of audiences, professionalism, research, and policy (Hooper-Greenhill, 1991, 2007). Equally if you compare David Anderson's A Common Wealth with the situation 10 years later, the changes are breathtaking: all 12 targets had to some extent been met in many UK museums and galleries (Bellamy and Oppenheim, 2009).

A Wider Perspective

  1. Top of page
  2. The Core of Museum and Gallery Learning
  3. Improving the UK Framework for Museum Learning
  4. A Wider Perspective
  5. Programming for Leisure and Learning
  6. Evaluation and Research
  7. A Balancing Act
  8. Conclusions: A Sustainable Future?
  9. Acknowledgments
  10. References
  11. Further Reading

The context for US museum and gallery learning is different from north western Europe. The United States does not have national systems for education or culture, was not a post-war welfare state, and has a taxation system that encourages private and corporate philanthropy. There are therefore named, sponsored posts for learning, programs and learning centers as for curators and directors. The evaluative culture that goes with private funding took root there long before it did in Europe, and a number of advocacy documents and reports provided a framework for US developments. Excellence and Equity (AAM, 1992) was subtitled “Education and the Public Dimension of Museums.” It took a postmodern view of the authority of the museum, and advocated partnerships, not least with audiences – “partnerships that respect the knowledge brought to the conversation by all the participants [and] … incorporate that collective perspective” (Lord, 2007: 109).

A recent review of US philanthropy by Polly Sidford (2011), however, points out how little US funding for cultural learning is socially targeted, yet how big the challenges remain: participation in mainstream culture is falling and still largely white, middle class, and ageing, yet a demand for “active participation” is growing elsewhere in the arts. In specific cultural terms Sidford sees a balancing act not only between demographic and social sectors but also between new ways of interpreting collections and the traditional canons of art history, a worldwide tension at the heart of all museum learning especially during a recession.

A pattern of renewal, radical change, and especially audience-focused learning and outreach work in museums and galleries is now familiar worldwide. New kinds of museum histories and writing document it, for example in Ireland (Bourke, 2011) where pedagogy has traditionally been ultra-conservative until recently (see also O'Donoghue, in Xanthoudaki, Tickle, and Sekules, 2003, on artists and learning at the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin). For some of the post-soviet countries in Europe, governments are gradually becoming more flexible in what they fund and encouraging greater participation from adult learners, volunteers, and preschool children. Spanish museums were reborn with many energetic learning departments and programs; in Portugal (where much of the initiative comes from foundations rather than government) it is taking longer to embed. In Denmark change has come from a familiar mix of advocacy and innovation by museum professionals leading to government funding and policy change (Gron, in Fritsch, 2011). Just as the value of European museums and their social, economic, and educational role was understood by nineteenth-century American museum founders, so today museum cultures acknowledge the value of museum learning. This could be seen in Australia, New Zealand, and Singapore from the 1990s (Lord, 2007: 3; Reeve, 2012; Leong, 2003), and more recently in Brazil, Japan, Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the Middle East. For example, the recently opened Museum of Islamic Art at Doha in Qatar defines its mission as “rooted in the belief that education is the founding stone for the future of any prosperous society” and therefore the Museum's education centre is to “become a ‘knowledge hub’ of the nation's arts learning. This is pivotal, in providing high quality, consistent and accessible teaching and learning opportunities for the Museum's key audiences: schools, students, scholars, families, adults and other community groups.” When the museum opened, its website summed up its programs as “DAZZLE THE EXPERT. INSPIRE THE CHILD” (cf. http://www.mia.org.qa/en/learning).

Programming for Leisure and Learning

  1. Top of page
  2. The Core of Museum and Gallery Learning
  3. Improving the UK Framework for Museum Learning
  4. A Wider Perspective
  5. Programming for Leisure and Learning
  6. Evaluation and Research
  7. A Balancing Act
  8. Conclusions: A Sustainable Future?
  9. Acknowledgments
  10. References
  11. Further Reading

If learning is at the core of the museum's business and mission then the learning program must be seen to support these, and thus programming can be seen as both being influenced by, and influencing, the interrelationship between pedagogical practice and audience development. Therefore an effective and sustainable public education program for a museum or gallery requires a multi-skilled manager to balance the following priorities: a knowledge of the audience group and its potential needs, interests, and incomes; an understanding of pedagogy and learning styles; a knowledge of the collection and its multiple interpretations; and the planning and management of resources.

J. Robert Rossman describes a program as “a plan or procedure for developing opportunities for individuals to participate in arts and cultural leisure experiences” (2008: 24). Programs may be single events or the museum's entire annual formal education program. Experiences may involve activities (such as workshops), services (such as tours and audio-guides), and events (such as an academic conference or a performance by musicians/dancers). In a world of sponsorship and measured outcomes, programs however informal require aims and objectives.

The form of the program is determined by choices about scheduling (late-night openings, museum nights), delivery (hands-on, interactives, internet), location (hospital, prison, retirement home). Figure 3 shows dementia patients in a day centre using archive football photographs to recall their youthful experiences as players and spectators. Content may focus on supporting a major exhibition or new gallery in an often traditionally modernist and information-rich manner, whereas postmodernist commentators would argue that the program and the event (rather than a collection or exhibit) can themselves be the focus (e.g., Black History Month, Eid or Day of the Dead celebrations, Chinese New Year, the Big Draw). The museum/gallery in this view becomes a platform for performance and social interaction, and so functions as a safe public space (Heumann Gurian, 2010). A separate program department (as at the Museum of London) or events team (as at the Victoria and Albert Museum [V&A]) may organize these programs rather than the learning team that focuses on conferences, lectures, gallery talks, and workshops.

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Figure 3. Older men with dementia in a Day Centre using archive photographs of footballers to recall their past memories of playing and watching.

© Sporting Memories Network.

A stable diet of regular “tried and tested” programming for adults may help with streamlining and sustainability at a certain level, and reduce risk of being inefficient and ineffective. But this may not stretch either the participants or the educator, nor enable personalization and creativity in programming and audience development. In many museums, greater progression is now offered through a sliding scale (in terms of depth and breadth) of adult learning events from free drop-in introductory tours (trained volunteers) and specialist gallery talks (staff educators, curators, freelances) and less regular free lectures, through charging Saturday study days and short daytime courses to joint university-level courses in the evenings. There is a new interest in lectures that focus on opinions, especially by authors, popular scientists, and historians, and in conversations with artists and critics; and social forums for discussion such as reading groups, science cafés, and salons. UK examples include the Science Museum and the Wellcome Collection. The typical learning department no longer aspires to cover the collections from its own staff members but acts as a manager of a coherent and comprehensive program. The staff act as specialists on access, for example, and digital learning, with adults, families, schools, and teachers. They work also as partners with curators on many programs including offsite and online.

We summarized key considerations for programming in 2006 as follows:

Some audiences require special facilities (under-fives, schools, families, disabled people). Some services can be provided by hiring in (tourists, adult courses, practical workshops) or by using trained volunteers (introductory tours, craft demonstrations, stewarding at special events, accompanying severely disabled visitors, working with communities). Some audience roles require core expertise: policy and programme-making, audience and learning advocacy on gallery, exhibition and online projects, publishing for young and specialist educational audiences. Some programmes can sustain themselves through charging if key posts are already funded (schools, teachers, tourists, adult education); others need to be free if a museum is to be inclusive as well as responsive (under-fives, families, communities, youth, outreach).

(Reeve, 2006, 58)

The modern museum or gallery is frequently not only part of the experience economy but a spectacle in itself, notably Tate Modern and its Turbine Hall. This is now a venue for dance and music, corporate entertaining, and audience interaction (with each other, the massive installations, or the space itself) (Rees Leahy, 2005). The experience is supported by an education centre/information desk adjacent to the cloakroom and a palatial shop with commercial products as well as educational and academic resources.

UK museums and galleries host live performance by artists, storytellers, reenactment groups, professional and community performers – actors in role and costume for Roman or Viking army days or celebrating the eighteenth century. Film festivals are held on themes such as anthropology and archaeology, or for example Iranian, Russian, Arab, or Canadian film linked to exhibitions or new galleries at the British Museum. Museums therefore operate as arts and learning centers, working across many platforms, and, like contemporary culture and learning, unconstrained by media and subject and not just concerned with what happens to be in the collections. They cannot stay aloof from the pressures of the world outside but are increasingly engaged, for example, with the tricky area of beliefs, faiths, dogma, and prejudice (see Reeve, 2012). As safe places for unsafe ideas the museum and its programs offer a platform where identities, ideals, and issues can be presented, shared, disputed.

To facilitate these new and ambitious approaches to programming, new learning centers have become a familiar feature, particularly in American museums (Lord, 2007: chapter 8, with checklist for facilities). Similarly in the United Kingdom a significant feature of new aspirations and funding was the creation of 650 museum and gallery learning spaces with the help of the Heritage Lottery Fund and notably the Clore Duffield Foundation (Rogers, 2004; Lang, Reeve, and Woollard, 2006).

The Clore Centre at the British Museum (used as much for corporate hire and academic or adult education purposes as for schools) includes a Samsung digital discovery centre alongside two auditoria, three seminar rooms and a studio, and crucial school and family lunchrooms – but all tucked away in the basement whereas the V&A's Sackler Learning Centre is highly visible on the main floor of the museum and the result of considerable consultation with intended audiences. It includes lecture theatre and seminar rooms, publicly accessible studios for artists in residence (who have included jewelers, calligraphers, designers, and sound artists), studios for computer-aided design and practical workshops, a small gallery space, and of course lunchrooms. New kinds of programming put new demands on the museum auditorium from lecture hall to cinema and flexible public space (see Sharmacharja, 2009). Another trend is for learning pods to complement adjacent galleries, as in the Getty, with volunteer-run handling tables, terminals, and books. A similar idea is being introduced at Tate Britain to help remove the physical separation of gallery and learning spaces. Front-of-house staff in the highly interactive new galleries at the Museum of London combine learning and visitor service roles.

In The Responsive Museum (Lang, Reeve, and Woollard, 2006) we noted enormous investment in online technologies although we queried how much their learning potential had been evaluated, integrated, or realized (cf. National Museum Directors Conference, 1999; Selwood, 2010: 3.4). Roy Hawkey's extensive analysis of the literature (Hawkey, 2004) confirms the need for a coherent pedagogy for museum learning that integrates digital learning and access. Often museums were, and still are, guilty of offloading catalogues of objects onto their websites or using the site solely as a marketing tool, thus missing the opportunity for real interaction with the collections.

Approaches to digital resources and their use can vary dramatically, and this may reflect who is in charge of online media. For example the Louvre online database Atlas provides information on 26,000 of the 35,000 works on permanent display as well as high-resolution images. The British Museum has prioritized comprehensive database and images for the majority of the millions of items in the collection, with separately originated strands for families and schools. Figure 4 shows secondary school students using PDAs (Personal Digital Assistants) in a British Museum gallery.

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Figure 4. Year 9 students in the British Museum using a Samsung tablet to access an interactive augmented reality activity investigating the ways postcolonial states drew on material culture from the past to forge national identities.

Photograph: benedictjohnson.com © British Museum.

Whereas the V&A opts for limited collections coverage but greater engagement with specific target groups and their needs for inspirational designs (e.g. makers of all kinds of textiles, especially knitters) or to share poly-vocal interpretation (faith focus groups), Tate Online asks if you want to take an online course, explore material in its archive, use award-winning resources for visually impaired people, find in-depth information on artists and works in Tate's collection, or find video and audio from study days, artists’ talks, and more from a multi-voiced playlist of over a thousand items. The Metropolitan Museum site is more akin to a serious distance-learning course. The Prado, National Museums of Scotland, and the National Gallery London allow detailed inspection of their collection highlights but not depth of information. The Louvre, Prado, and the National Gallery London offer online trails and the chance to construct your own collection. In the museum itself digital teaching resources are being used more flexibly. For example at the Museum of London and V&A trolleys take ICT equipment out into the galleries as well as in fixed studios for design, research, and play (cf. Heritage Lottery Fund, 2011).

Evaluation and Research

  1. Top of page
  2. The Core of Museum and Gallery Learning
  3. Improving the UK Framework for Museum Learning
  4. A Wider Perspective
  5. Programming for Leisure and Learning
  6. Evaluation and Research
  7. A Balancing Act
  8. Conclusions: A Sustainable Future?
  9. Acknowledgments
  10. References
  11. Further Reading

Today practitioners regularly evaluate their programs, and respond to the often complex research data gathered by adjusting resources and designing different types of sessions (see Pontin, 2006). Some UK museums now publish their evaluation data on exhibitions and galleries, revealing reactions to interpretation, learning styles, stay time, the use of multimedia (Natural History Museum, 2013; Selwood, 2010; Fritsch, 2011). To some extent in Britain, this emphasis on evaluation and research has been driven by governments keen to implement management systems such as performance targets central to funding agreements. In 2006 we welcomed UK government funding support but regretted the narrowness of performance indicators and measurements that accompanied the new funding. Collecting data from the formal education sector is given priority as it is easier to organize than that from informal audience groups such as families and adult learners (Lang, Reeve, and Woollard, 2006).

Between 2000 and 2007 over 64,000 pupils and over 3,000 teachers completed questionnaires and attended discussion or focus groups organized by the Research Centre for Museums and Galleries (RCMG) under the leadership of Professor Eilean Hooper-Greenhill (Hooper-Greenhill, 2007). The RCMG at Leicester was commissioned by the MLA as part of its “Inspiring Learning for All” framework to develop the Generic Learning Outcomes as the main methodology for collecting and analyzing the impact of museum learning, providing qualitative as well as the more usual quantitative data for government and the profession. The evaluation of these projects confirmed museums as highly effective places for personalized learning in the formal education sector and above all as motivation for learning itself, but less confident in working with community groups (RCMG, 2004a, 2004b). Anna Cutler (2010) of Tate argued “that there is a set of repeated and identifiable similarities that frame cultural learning … Key findings … can be identified as increased confidence, a shift in attitudes and behaviours, improved motivation and sustained engagement. There is also evidence of an increase in critical thinking applied beyond the learning environment.”

Regular evaluation of programs has long been part of US museum and gallery learning. More emphasis on qualitative evaluation has changed practice and policy as seen for example in Dallas, where Bonnie Pitman has documented the impact of her own museum education background as a director in Ignite the Power of Art (Pitman and Hirzy, 2011). Some UK museums have also established their own research culture around practice and learning as can be seen from Tate (Cutler, 2010; Charman, 2005) and the V&A (Sandell and Nightingale, 2012; Fritsch, 2011). University College London is leading a project that looks at the therapeutic use of handling cultural artifacts in hospitals, and the University of Newcastle is researching public understanding of art for the Laing Art Gallery Tyneside. The UK art gallery education organization engage has also developed a substantial body of research in working with a number of university departments (Taylor, 2006). Maria Xanthoudaki, Les Tickle, and Veronica Sekules (2003) document examples of visual education research in museums and galleries in Canada, Greece, Finland, Ireland, Italy, and elsewhere.

A Balancing Act

  1. Top of page
  2. The Core of Museum and Gallery Learning
  3. Improving the UK Framework for Museum Learning
  4. A Wider Perspective
  5. Programming for Leisure and Learning
  6. Evaluation and Research
  7. A Balancing Act
  8. Conclusions: A Sustainable Future?
  9. Acknowledgments
  10. References
  11. Further Reading

Whatever the level of resourcing, learning departments have to be more selective about targeting programs where they are most needed and have most impact. Flexibility is crucial, responding also to the changing agendas and viability of public, corporate, and charitable funders. As Reeve has argued:

If the overall aim is to create new generations of confident, engaged museum and gallery users having a high-quality experience, then resources need to be targeted at a combination of catching them young and making sure they are not put off by a parody of schooling; supporting them as parents; sustaining their interest as adult learners. As these new museum users make use of the improved facilities and the increasing range of learning tools on site and online, the core learning and access teams can then concentrate on the labour intensive groups and labour intensive roles. Streamlining for some and targeting for others does not inevitably mean a loss of quality.

(Reeve, 2006: 56–58)

In 2006 we reviewed the wider context for audience development beyond the policy initiatives and changes in museum learning philosophy that we have outlined above. Factors included: more leisure time for many; more critical consumers; higher educational aspirations in a context of lifelong learning; significant demographic change, with increasing diversification of the population across the world through migration and growing diasporas; and ageing in the old world. By 2021 more than one third of the population in the United Kingdom will be aged over 65, and similar patterns apply for elsewhere in Europe and Japan.

Targeting communities is a good example of the problem of balancing audiences, mission, and resources. The concept of community itself is problematic; but the idea of working with and for communities is not new. It works well in a strong local context but is more problematic for national museums and galleries. The Whitechapel Gallery in East London for example started in 1900 to bring culture to a poor, white, and especially Jewish, working-class neighborhood (now largely Bengali) (Borzello, 1987). It manages to combine cutting-edge contemporary art while still fulfilling a community role. Similarly in the United States at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, Beth Schneider (1998) documents the revival from 1993 of its founding purpose (dating from 1924) of concerted community and outreach work made possible through substantial sponsorship. This is a counterexample to those who highlight the dangers of sponsor interference, restrictiveness, or lack of interest in longer-term, social outcomes off site. Previous pioneering outreach work in US art museums often did not survive because it was entirely dependent on ad hoc funding. This is one of the great challenges: getting outreach work with all kinds of communities (white working class for example as well as ethnic or rural) into the museum bloodstream, sustained through partnership rather than tokenistic temporary funding. Bernadette Lynch (2011) concluded that funding invested in recent years in public engagement and participation in the United Kingdom's museums and galleries has not succeeded in shifting the work from the margins to the core of many of these organizations. In fact, it has curiously done the opposite: by providing funding streams outside of core budgets, it appears to have helped keep the work on the organizations’ periphery. However museums can make a big difference to communities at times of stress and upheaval as both anchors and platforms for participation and change, as can be seen in the pioneering museum community work and public programming in South Africa (Lord, 2007: 124–131).

Another way of thinking about priorities may be to ask the question “Where can museum learning make the biggest difference?” or in the jargon “Where can most value be added?” If museums are so successful with the very young, disaffected teenagers, and those in special schools for disabled children, should they not become major priorities? These kinds of audience are very labor intensive, like long-term work with communities or small groups of adults such as the hearing-impaired, and therefore not likely to produce large numbers for the performance indicators. One can also ask “what can a museum uniquely do because of its collection or location?” Inclusiveness does not mean all museums aiming to provide programs for all audiences and spreading their resources thinly as a result.

In the United Kingdom museum audience priorities in 2006 appeared to be schools (the main measured audience for government and other funders) and families rather than non-vocational adult learners or tourists (except as consumers); active rather than passive learners; and offsite including online learning, either as an adjunct to or substitute for the actual visit. With communities, the priority still seemed to be targeting an ethnic, gender, or special interest group related to a specific exhibition, event, or collection, rather than sustained and truly intercultural programming, or creating other opportunities for that community once contact has been made (Lang, Reeve, and Woollard, 2006).

For Reeve in 1990 at the British Museum the balance was between the claims of different kinds of audiences (schools and the wider public for example) and the demands for content (between delivering to the demands of the national curriculum and the opportunities to be innovative); but also in managing staff time between direct teaching by staff and the creation of teaching resources for others to use; and finally between time dedicated to the direct delivery of education services and the contribution to exhibition design and interpretation (Reeve, 1992; Hooper-Greenhill, 1991). Today the Museum of London balances its intensive work where it impacts strongly (e.g. early years, English for speakers of other languages, and special educational needs) with its extensive work with often much larger audiences (digital, families, schools). It also maintains its role as audience advocate, on all areas of the museum's work including collections (very time-consuming but essential), evaluation, and access (which can also often be found in human resources or visitor services teams, as can diversity). In many museums and galleries income-generating work with adults and some areas of mainstream schooling helps support outreach work and programs that need to be free (drop-in events, community, access), assuming that the learning department is a cost center and keeps the income it generates.

Since the balancing act concerns management issues as well, there are also different responses to how learning relates to the rest of the organization. For Anna Cutler (2010) head of learning at Tate in London, educators should be less compartmentalized, being relieved of their custodial duties as “guardians of learning” and the “passers-down/on/across of information,” to become more dispersed facilitators in learning, who construct program opportunities across the whole institution. Museum learning specialists need to be more involved in more of the museum's activities but they also need an institutional base and body of verifiable expertise, just as conservators and curators do, and should avoid becoming too curatorial in their approach (but not in their knowledge). Already gallery and exhibition development teams in some museums assume that audience is somehow being addressed without advocates being part of the process. Underpinning all these recommendations is the shift in the understanding of the professional museum educator's role as facilitator, enabler, planner, negotiator, working alongside audiences. Helen Charman of the Design Museum London (2005) also believes that education curators need to rethink their role. Knowledge of audience and policy contexts, learning theory and practice, subject disciplines, and organizations is no longer enough. Charman argues:

It is in responsibility to audience that a distinctive quality of an educator's professionalism emerges, recast as a form of duty of care which embraces not just the intellectual experience of our visitors, but also cares for their emotional and physical well-being whilst at the museum, recognizing and respecting the embodied visitor who has physical and emotional needs as well as aesthetic and cognitive ones. (2005: 8)

Conclusions: A Sustainable Future?

  1. Top of page
  2. The Core of Museum and Gallery Learning
  3. Improving the UK Framework for Museum Learning
  4. A Wider Perspective
  5. Programming for Leisure and Learning
  6. Evaluation and Research
  7. A Balancing Act
  8. Conclusions: A Sustainable Future?
  9. Acknowledgments
  10. References
  11. Further Reading

What have we learnt about museum learning and programs from the last 20 years? The experience of New Labour in the United Kingdom shows that governments that support cultural learning can really make a difference to public attitudes to participation and to raising professional confidence and standards. Publicly funded organizations now know that they have to focus on their stakeholders’ interests and that robust evidence is required to demonstrate that more of the public is included and actively engaged. We have learnt that discreetly funded projects kick-start new methodological approaches, allow staff to acquire new skills, and help organizations to form new and often sustainable partnerships. New kinds of ICT (especially social media), more aggressive and targeted marketing techniques, and improved strategic thinking and better leadership by management have helped to create more fully integrated learning organizations with a more focused goal of not only serving the public but sharing interpretation and authority in responding to their needs and opinions through public forums, focus groups, and consultations. See Figure 5 with the young consultants group at the Geffrye Museum where the group contribute to exhibitions, lead guided tours, and run public events.

figure

Figure 5. Following government policy on including young people in decision-making, the Geffrye Museum among others set up a youth forum/paid young consultants group, which encourages dialogue and contributions to exhibitions, interpretation, marketing and event planning.

© Geffrye Museum

Effective lobbying, advocacy, better evaluation data, and campaigns such as “learning outside the classroom” and “kids in museums” have also contributed to this shift.

Where is museum and gallery learning in all of this? In many instances it has been the learning team leading the way in forging new partnerships, embracing new audiences, enabling museums and galleries to seek new funding around social inclusion, to interpret the collections in creative and imaginative ways that allow for many more visitors (actual and virtual) to make links to their own lives. However there is much more work to be done. In the United Kingdom It is clear from Arts Council England's review of literature and research around museums and libraries (ACE, 2011) that community engagement remains on the periphery of strategic planning and is not integrated into all aspects of museum activity. Ian Blackwell asks “Why are community voices still unheard?” (Blackwell, 2009; Blackwell and Scaife, 2006). Assumptions in formal education of providing pedagogical progression and precision (especially in evaluation) need to be rolled out for adult education, families, and community engagement as well. The old equation of “formal” learning with “core” and “informal” learning with “optional extra” needs to be rejected if museums and galleries are to have a sustainable future as learning experiences and providers. At the Museum of London learning really is at the core (the mission statement of the museum is “inspiring a passion for London and a passion for learning”) and is taking the lead on the reinterpretation of new galleries.

Museum learning departments do have a sustainable future role, and must not be deflected by those who focus on excellence rather than equity or think separate learning departments are not necessary. The need to be flexible and entrepreneurial has never before been such an imperative in the world of museum and gallery learning. In the United Kingdom, to think more strategically is to plan ahead with mixed and unstable funding streams that may allow the museum to continue with its core learning and community work as well as remaining commercially viable, without relying mainly on a shrinking public purse (Selwood, 2010). In the United States where this has never been an option, philanthropy and other funding needs to be re-targeted if museums and galleries are to realize their full impact for learning and engagement (Sidford, 2011) and not just reconfirm existing audiences for larger institutions.

There are many different models now for sustaining learning services, expertise, and influence in museums and galleries. Some of these (use of volunteers or curators, for example) are highly culture specific. One model is a small core of permanent paid learning professionals with a large rota of trained volunteers (American docents for example), so long as volunteers are quality controlled and not socially off-putting to “non- traditional” visitors. The British Museum's volunteer “eye opener” guides do well in presenting informal introductory gallery tours to adults and families, relieving core education and curatorial staff for more specialized roles or working with more demanding audiences. Open air museums and industrial or folk life museums have always used volunteers as a key part not only of curation and conservation but also programming and community engagement – see the work of Tony Butler at the Museum of East Anglian Life in Suffolk on social enterprise (Museum of East Anglian Life, 2013).

Another model uses teachers or community activists and other partners to co-teach or ultimately run their own visits after training and co-teaching with in-house professionals. This model can work well with handling collections, as at the Horniman Museum in south London where the handling collection is centrally and accessibly housed and not just for schools. However, much needs to be done to encourage parents to feel more confident with their children in museums and galleries. Informal learning flourishes in informal settings. It is important to get closer physically to where the museum's non-audience is. Museums have made tentative steps to place collections and sometimes programs in hospitals, prisons, doctors’ surgeries, community centers, schools, stations, airports, offices, and boardrooms. One current example is the “pop up,” such as mobile oral history projects run from a van outside a library or supermarket, or temporary art workshops for example in disused shops in Margate (in advance of opening Turner Contemporary) during the recession. Many learning departments use tried and tested freelance interpreters and performers on a semi-contract basis. The real costs of this kind of program require charging or a large subsidy. Also there are challenges with having artists as educators when they are not trained to do that – artists in residence in schools often suffer the same problem.

In 1999 the Anderson report showed that the vast majority of museums and galleries in the United Kingdom did not have education staff – that is no longer the case, but in a new economic climate it may be necessary again to adapt to more collaboration within and between museums, alongside new approaches to governance. Now curators, conservators, and other members of museum staff contribute to UK museum learning programs as well as to membership and academic programs. Many but not all museum professional training courses now take account of these wider roles for both curators and educators in the twenty-first century museum. A new breed of freelance museum learning specialists, on, for example, early years, diversity, new technologies, community, or evaluation, work with a range of clients who do not have in-house expertise in these areas. One UK initiative enabled self-directed learner groups to make use of museum and gallery spaces and resources to support their own learning interests rather than those programmed by the staff (Museums, Libraries, and Archives Council, 2010).

US museum veteran Elaine Heumann Gurian has recently advocated the following role for the sustainable museum: the “museum as soup kitchen” needs to go beyond “business as usual” – not just “cloaked in the name of social good … but rather transforming currently less than useful local institutions into dynamic and community-focused ‘clubhouses’ for building social cohesion and incorporating social services usually delivered elsewhere such as job retraining, educational enhancements, and public discourse.” So museums become “rated by many more as essential to their needs and their aspirations for their children” (Heumann Gurian, 2010, 5).

When it comes to “teach the mind, touch the spirit” (motto for Chicago's Field Museum) the learning department and its partners and allies have a track record in knowing their users, knowing how to deliver, how to motivate and challenge, when to direct and when to hand back, what language or platform to use, when to structure and when to “let it all hang out.” That kind of expertise does not come overnight or from a book or a training course. Museum learning specialists should continue to expect and claim a major role in the increasingly multi-skilled museum profession. They should themselves become more multi-skilled and more often leave their comfort zones and education centers to advocate, campaign, curate, lead, direct – and to sustain what has been achieved. They should become a less uncertain profession however uncertain the times.

Acknowledgments

  1. Top of page
  2. The Core of Museum and Gallery Learning
  3. Improving the UK Framework for Museum Learning
  4. A Wider Perspective
  5. Programming for Leisure and Learning
  6. Evaluation and Research
  7. A Balancing Act
  8. Conclusions: A Sustainable Future?
  9. Acknowledgments
  10. References
  11. Further Reading

Our thanks to: Stephen Allan, National Museums Scotland; Dr Christine Castle, Ontario, Canada; Gail Durbin, former head of the V&A online museum; Pamela Glintenkamp, documentary media producer/director/editor; Karen Gron, director of the Trapholt Museum Denmark; Litza Juhasz, Budapest Fine Arts Museum, Hungary; Caroline Lang, formerly V&A Learning Team; Beth Schneider, author and museum educator.

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  2. The Core of Museum and Gallery Learning
  3. Improving the UK Framework for Museum Learning
  4. A Wider Perspective
  5. Programming for Leisure and Learning
  6. Evaluation and Research
  7. A Balancing Act
  8. Conclusions: A Sustainable Future?
  9. Acknowledgments
  10. References
  11. Further Reading
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Further Reading

  1. Top of page
  2. The Core of Museum and Gallery Learning
  3. Improving the UK Framework for Museum Learning
  4. A Wider Perspective
  5. Programming for Leisure and Learning
  6. Evaluation and Research
  7. A Balancing Act
  8. Conclusions: A Sustainable Future?
  9. Acknowledgments
  10. References
  11. Further Reading
  • Centre for Education and Industry. 2004. Learning through Culture is Working! Museums and Galleries Education Programme. University of Warwick: Centre for Education and Industry.
  • Eisner, Elliot , and S. Dobbs . 1986. The Uncertain Profession: Observations on the State of Education in Twenty American Museums. Los Angeles: Getty Centre for Education in the Arts.
  • Hawkey, Roy . 2006. “Digital Technologies and Museum Learning.” In The Responsive Museum: Working with Audiences in the Twenty-First Century, ed. Caroline Lang , John Reeve and Vicky Woollard , Aldershot: Ashgate, 115116.
  • Marstine, Janet (ed.). 2011. Routledge Companion to Museum Ethics: Redefining Ethics for the Twenty-First Century Museum. London and New York: Routledge.