Museums and informal education

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Chandler Screven examines the possibilities for informal education within museums. There has been a strong tradition of thinking about informal education in museums and centers in north American – especially in relation to science – and Screven provides some important guidelines.

contents: introduction · communication in the informal education environment · making exhibitions work · further reading and references

At the time of writing Dr. Chandler Screven is the Director, International Laboratory for Visitor Studies and Professor of Psychology, Department of Psychology at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. He was servings as Co-Editor for the ILVS Review: A Journal of Visitor Behavior and was a member of the Executive Board for the Visitor Studies Association.

This piece was first published in 1993 in the CMS Bulletin Vol. 1 No. 1.

Much of today’s focus on education is on formal resources like schools and classrooms. Informal settings such as museums offer untapped potential for communicating social, cultural and scientific information, correcting misconceptions and improving attitudes and cognitive skills. Learning is voluntary and self-directed in such informal settings. It is driven by curiosity, discovery, free exploration and the sharing of experiences with companions. Learning in museums, in its broadest sense, is a by-product of the free interaction of leisure oriented visitors with exhibitions and their surroundings. (This discussion focuses on adult visitors and family groups, not organized or guided groups such as school groups.)

Progress in recent years has made it possible to design features into public environments that can facilitate the voluntary learning of a variety of cognitive skills such as divergent thinking, critical analysis, better understanding of the past, the complexity of the natural world and critical environment issues. Also, the museum experience can affect personal attitudes such as self-esteem. Experientially rich public environments like museums, zoos, parks, art galleries, science and technology centers, aquariums and even corporate centers offer unique opportunities not only for studying how people learn during leisure time activities but also for offering alternatives to formal educational settings.

Efforts to implement these potentials are not easy. Educational researchers who venture into museums quickly discover that theories grounded in formal education are not very helpful in identifying presentation modes and teaching strategies that stimulate and sustain visitor interest. Sooner or later they place less reliance on educational theory and more on watching what visitors do during visits, how they move through spaces, how much time they spend reading, viewing displays and even which exhibition halls they choose.

Communication in the informal education environment

Visitors often enjoy museum visits, most visibly to observers, in hands-on and interactive exhibitions. Hands-on exhibitions are not necessarily accompanied by educational, cultural or scientific enrichment, although they may be accompanied by having fun. Exit interviews conducted over the years in different types of museums suggest that the public often misses many of the ideas and/or attitudes that were the original intentions of exhibition designers.

Museums generally know how to design the scholarly, aesthetic and physical aspects of exhibition spaces. The motivations, preconceptions, attitudes and learning capabilities of visitors are less understood.

To motivate and communicate in museums, considerable knowledge is necessary about how visitors behave and learn in leisure-oriented settings. It is important to remember that the unguided learning that occurs in museums is a by-product of independent and usually intrinsically rewarding exploratory activities. There are no grades, no top-down control and there is no reason for visitors to pay attention except for its own sake. Usually, exhibition experiences are without benefit of teachers or other knowledgeable persons to interpret what visitors are seeing or doing. This means that visitors may or may not learn that their misconceptions are wrong, that science can be fun while intellectually stimulating, that learning can be exciting, or that things are not always what they seem.

To effectively communicate substantive knowledge or alter attitudes or misconceptions under informal learning conditions is a formidable but not impossible task. Self-directed learning already is part of learning sports, hobbies, music, social skills, attitudes, problem solving and other aspects of lifelong learning. Learning under natural conditions may or may not be as appropriate, useful or efficient as it might be under formal teaching conditions. But people are changed by such natural encounters, sometimes for the better, with most aspects of their daily lives, including museum experiences. Howard Gardner (1983, 1991) and others have argued that natural encounters with the environment form the foundation of later learning and problem solving. The quality of these outcomes varies widely, but in one way or another, the outcomes, good or bad, are shaped by contingencies operating within the environments in which such learning occurs. Gravity shapes what we know about bouncing balls, sensory and physiological structures shape how we see and how well we can jump, and the natural actions/reactions of others teach us how to relate and communicate. In museums, research suggests that contingencies operating in and around exhibitions can affect their potential educational impact as a part of the natural exploration of museum displays.

Making exhibitions work

Exhibitions can work if planners do more than provide logically organized exhibition content. Open, voluntary conditions require modes that deliver content (e.g., interactives, film, objects, words) and the incentives for attending to this content, which are as important as the exhibition content itself. Unfortunately, delivery modes and motivational strategies usually are given little serious attention during exhibition planning.

Directors, curators, and exhibition planning staff also need more direct experience with the general public. The personal involvement which many museum staff have with teaching and education comes through their formal school experience; this offers a poor model for the exploratory, leisure-oriented nature of museums.

Exhibition planners must give more attention early in the design process to innocent features of displays such as placement, wording, type size, lighting, etc. These have great influence on whether or not attention is likely to be random and mindless, or active and focused. There are economical ways that enable the early testing and correction of such problems. Methodologies such as formative evaluation provide museum staff with simple, inexpensive procedures to pre-test mockup versions of prospective exhibition components such as text, visuals, placement and interactive formats. (Screven, 1990; Taylor, 1992).

To achieve both visitor attention and communication, exhibitions need goal-directed and discovery activities (e.g., making predictions, completing a task, resolving a question) that reward appropriate attention. The goal is that visitors use exhibition content as the framework for the learning activities. Visitors must operate a dial, compare two events, look for answers to a question, etc. (“What makes the ball come down?” “What is missing in this picture?” “What happens if X is kept constant?”) In other words, the positive results from attending and doing sustain this attention. Such natural (intrinsic) rewards can take many forms, but can include such simple things as completion of a task, achieving a prescribed score or performance level, or successfully predicting an event.

Visitors often obtain powerful and intrinsic rewards simply through random and irrelevant interaction with exhibitions. Many museums that employ hands-on gadgets and discovery designs end up encouraging brainless manipulation because of the motivational activities available from simply operating these gadgets. Mindless button pressing, using exhibitions to get attention and sensory stimulation from lights, sounds and companions also are rewarding enough to sustain attention, whether or not appropriate attention is given to exhibition content.

Some suggest that punishing mindless behavior (e.g., exhibition becomes inoperative, hard to read) may be needed. Schools, which face this same problem, often sustain attention by threats of negative consequences if students do not attend (e.g., poor grades). Museums are unique in that visitors are not easily motivated by what may happen if they do not attend! For example, poor lighting, bad placement, too much information, unfamiliar language and poor organization in effect punish viewers by making it difficult to find and use exhibition content. Museum exhibitions must minimize such negative characteristics because most visitors, unlike school students, have the option of ignoring them. In summary, effective educational exhibitions will deliver useful content and be more engaging when focused attention to this content takes place.

While there is still much to learn about how and why people learn in public settings, the following points are proving helpful in producing exhibitions that are more effective educationally. (Bitgood et al, 1990/91; Miles et al, 1988; Screven, 1986, 1990, 1992).

  1. The quality of visitor attention varies from passive (casual) to active involvement (visitors compare things, ask questions, look for connections).

  2. While some planners often resist text and other interpretive materials as intrusive and aesthetically disruptive, interpretive text/graphics usually are needed to help visitors understand the larger context of exhibition objects. The visual, sensory, emotional, action and social aspects of objects often are more interesting to many visitors than the text (Screven, 1992). This can be overcome by designing the text so it adds to the rewarding aspects of the sensory, action and social rewards available from the exhibitions. Many visitors will read text that is approachable, suggests things to do, adds to a mystery, leads to the unexpected, enables a prediction and so on.

  3. Visitors often must limit the time spent in museums because of fatigue, hunger, parking, appointments, and other practical problems. (The average visiting time is 1-2 hours.) The more time visitors perceive an exhibition or text to require, the less likely they will attend to it without compelling reasons to do so.

  4. Almost all interpretive materials require some formative evaluation.

Human learning and motivation, developmental psychology, cognitive science, educational psychology and instructional design have important implications for teaching and motivating museum visitors. However, these techniques have had few real world applications in museums. Misconceptions, pseudo-controversies, contradictory methodologies and over- simplifications of evaluation abound in the museum field. Visitor studies are currently investigating the following questions to increase our understanding of how and why people learn in exhibits.

  • Some exhibition formats work better than others (e.g., interactive flip labels, question strategies, game strategies). What specific features of these more effective designs are responsible for their effectiveness? Are some formats better suited for particular educational goals?

  • What pro-active exhibit strategies are best suited to change nonproductive visitor attitudes, or correct visitor misconceptions?

  • How can the diverse individuals that make up exhibition planning teams work together more effectively?

  • Does reading level, knowledge of a topic, misconceptions, learning style, time constraints or other visitor characteristics affect post-visit activities and attention?

  • What is the long-term impact of museum visits on schoolwork, life-long learning, vocational choices, environmental attitudes, family activities?

The museum field does have assistance with informal education research. The Visitor Studies Association sponsors an annual meeting which draws museum, zoo and other specialists from around the world. The ILVS Review is a professional journal devoted exclusively to visitor-oriented designs. More and more, museums are realizing that they must pay attention to their visitors and are evaluating the effectiveness of their exhibitions both during and after installation. Such attention to informal education increases the learning potential and the enjoyment of museum visits.

Further reading and references

Bitgood, S., A. Benefield & D. Patterson. (Eds.) Visitor Studies: Theory, Research and Practice. Volumes 3 and 4. (Proceedings of 1990 and 1991 Conferences of Visitor Studies Association.) Jacksonville, AL: Center for Social Design. 1991.

Gardner, Howard. The Unschooled Mind: How Children Think and How Schools Should Teach. New York, NY: Basic Books. 1992.

Loomis, R. J. Museum Visitor Evaluation. Nashville, TN: American Association for State and Local History. 1987.

Miles, R. S., M. B. Alt, D. C. Gosling, B. N. Lewis, & A. F. Tout. The Design of Educational Exhibits. 2nd edition. London: Allen and Unwin. 1988.

Screven, C. G. “Exhibitions and Information Centers: Some Principles and Approaches.” Curator. 1986. 29(2) 109-137.

Screven, C. G. “Uses of Evaluation Before, During, and After Exhibit Design.” ILVS Review: A Journal of Visitor Behavior. 1990. 1(2) 33-66.

Screven, C. G. “Motivating Visitors To Read Labels.” ILVS Review: A Journal of Visitor Behavior. 1992. 2(2) 183-212.

Screven, C. G. “Visitor Studies in the U. S.” Museum. 1993. 178 (2)

Screven, C. G., ed. The Visitor Studies Bibliography and Abstracts, Volume 3. Shorewood, WI: Exhibits Communication Research, Inc. 1993.

Taylor, S. ed. Try it! Improving Exhibits Through Formative Evaluation. Washington, DC: Association of Science-Technology Centers. 1991.

ILVS Review: A Journal of Visitor Behavior. Available from ILVS Publications, P. O. Box 11827, Shorewood, WI 53211-0827.

This article was reprinted with the kind permission of the Smithsonian Center for Education and Museum Studies:

© CMS Bulletin 1993. First published in the CMS Bulletin, Vol. 1, No. 1 (1993). Published in the informal education archives: March 2002