Creating effective learning spaces - Museums Association

Creating effective learning spaces

From lighting and storage to atmosphere
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Rebecca Atkinson
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When it comes to museum learning spaces, there isn’t a “one size fits all” approach.

Many of the case studies that feature in the updated version of the Space for Learning: a Handbook for Education Spaces in Museums, Heritage Sites and Discovery Centres guidance, which will be published on 13 October, are from recent capital redevelopments.

But others document how existing spaces can be adapted into effective learning environments that make the most of what’s available.

“It comes down to what activities you want to offer and how you want people to act in the space,” says Sam Cairns, a consultant who is delivering Space for Learning on behalf of Clore Duffield Foundation, a grant-making charity, the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) and other partners.

Natalie Walton, a freelance community and education consultant, says there are interesting trends in learning spaces for museums and visual art venues. Walton was the head of learning at the Hepworth Wakefield between 2010 and 2015 and is currently working with Wakefield Museums assessing the effectiveness of its learning spaces.

“An art gallery’s learning space needs to be flexible enough to accommodate anything that artists might throw at you – a blank canvas,” she says. “But museum learning spaces should be places of magic and mystery, where people can take part in immersive experiences such as object handling or role play.”

While the goals of learning spaces will vary from organisation to organisation, there are some general principles that museums and galleries can follow.

“We’re interested in spaces that are planned with learning professionals and that put users at the heart of their core purpose and their design,” says Jo Reilly, the head of participation and learning at the HLF. “Learning spaces should be flexible and multi-purpose.”

Where learning spaces have non-education functions, such as hosting meetings or other income-generating activities, Reilly says processes needs to be in place to ensure that enough time is ring-fenced for learning.

Cairns says that museums shouldn’t forget about the little things, which often can make all the difference to a space's effectiveness: “Toilets are a big issue generally – the number and how far they are from the learning can have huge impact on the people using the space.”

Adequate storage space and high-quality and flexible lighting systems are also important. 

Low light levels and colour temperature are understood to impact negatively on our ability to concentrate. This is also a wealth of evidence that suggests natural daylight can inform learning and have a positive effect on people’s wellbeing.

Investing in high-quality LED lighting can help spaces build in flexibility, and bring life to dark rooms.

Rooting a learning space in its physical environment is also important. The learning studios at the Turner Contemporary in Margate and the Watts Gallery near Guildford, Surrey, are very different, but both are visible to visitors and feature windows that allow people to look out at their surroundings.

Rather than tucking learning studios away in basements, attics or elsewhere, museums and galleries are increasingly aware that visibility is an important aspect of an effective learning space.

Orleans House Gallery in Richmond, London, transformed some former stables into a learning suite in 2006. With the support of senior management, the spaces were developed as an integral part of the gallery, both accessible and visible to the public.

“We also have an open door policy on our learning offices and the main space,” says Pippa Joiner, the gallery’s arts and heritage development coordinator. “And because we have access to an external courtyard, we try to incorporate that into the activities we offer as much as possible,”

A key point in the Space for Learning document is that learning spaces should be integrated into the wider service, and learners should have a sense of the museum or gallery they are in.

Orleans House achieved this by keeping the original features of the old coach house, such as wooden beams and the stable doors. It also took lines of text from old stable catalogues and had it printed onto glass doors.

For capital developments, ensuring that the learning team is involved in the design and development process is key. Natalie Walton says that architects don’t always consider who the audience might be for a specific space or how it needs to work.

“Sometimes we put a lot of control in the hands of architects and designers, but we have to have confidence to talk to about what we want and stick to our guns,” Walton says. “And learning teams need to be empowered to get out to see other spaces and understand what the possibilities are, rather than just accepting ‘this is what we’ve got’.”

At the Whitworth Gallery, which is part of the University of Manchester and reopened in February following a redevelopment, the learning team worked closely with curatorial colleagues. The Whitworth’s entire ground floor is now dedicated to learning, with a Clore learning studio, an art garden and a collections centre.

Esme Ward, the Whitworth’s head of learning and engagement, says that engaging non-education staff was really key in raising the profile of learning in the gallery. It also gave the organisation an opportunity to explore how the collections could be used in the learning spaces to give a sense of place.

Although it has formal learning areas for school and other educational visits, the whole of the Whitworth is intended to be used for learning. Ward says feedback from teachers is that they don’t want to be put in a room: “They want to engage with the building and the collection.”

The Clore studio can be booked by schools for activities that couldn’t take place in the gallery spaces, such as messy artwork. The rest of the time they are available for workshops, and drop-in use if they are free. The central position of the studio, and its visibility from the garden entrance, is an intentional statement that learning shouldn’t be banished to basements or hidden away behind closed doors.

“We want to stretch what learning looks like,” Ward says. “We’ve tried to create a very social context for learning, which is very different to learning at school.”

A lot of the Whitworth’s learning ethos is inspired by the Reggio Emilia Approach. This educational philosophy is based on the idea of children as individuals who learn through their relationships with others. Central to this is the role of the educational environment in shaping a child’s learning experience, and the atelierista, or teacher, in creating the right context for learning.

“This is what we’ve tried to achieve with our learning spaces,” Ward says. “We’ve taken the idea that the environment is the third teacher.”

Increasingly the design of museum learning spaces is being considered as part of the whole visitor experience. And when it comes to furniture and fittings, these are being integrated into the design process rather than seen as a list of things that need to be bought at the end.

During the Whitworth’s redevelopment, Ward and her team visited lots of learning spaces in other museums, as well as schools, botanical gardens, allotments and artist studios, looking for inspiration. The image-sharing website Pinterest was also used to collect examples of interesting spaces.

“The space we’ve created is very flexible,” Ward says. “There’s nothing high tech about it, it’s quite basic. We wanted a blank canvas that we could adapt to whatever learning was happening in the space.”

As such, the Clore studio doesn’t have any fixed furniture other than a bench. The floors are heated, which allow for floor work, and chairs are rarely used. Folding doors open up into the art garden, so activities can take place outside.

“We didn’t want a space that would shoehorn participants into a certain mode of learning,” Ward says. “And we absolutely didn’t want anything that looked like a classroom.”

The gallery will launch Love Learning, its formal learning programmes for nurseries, schools and colleges, this autumn. Since it reopened in February, the Clore studio and other learning spaces have been used to test different ideas and ways of working.

Love Learning is a continuation of what the Whitworth has tried to achieve with its physical learning spaces; creative activities will be used to encourage children to think and explore their view of the world.

While a light, visible learning space might be the ideal, for many museums this isn’t possible; instead, making the best use of the space available is the only option.

The Cardiff Story has learning activities built into its galleries, but also offers a dedicated lifelong learning gallery called City Lab, which is split into zones specifically targeted to different age groups or curriculum areas. 

These include Dewi Den for early years learning and a digital area where people can find out how they can research their own family histories or find out more information about the displays upstairs.

The space is located in the museum’s basement and there is no natural light. The layout of the building means it is often missed by visitors, so front-of-house staff tell visitors what’s available.

The museum finds that the learning space is a hit with visitors, despite these challenges.

“We find that people actually spend longer in the City Lab than they do upstairs,” says Lucie Connors, the Cardiff Story’s learning and outreach officer.  “We get a lot of repeat visits from families and adults that want to extend the learning experience. It’s very much part of the visitor experience, with an overarching aim to break down the limits of what a museum can do.”

Frequent use means that learning spaces will suffer from wear and tear. High-quality finishes can help reduce the impact of this, as well as providing a degree of professionalism. But beyond that, future-proofing learning spaces – especially around the use of technology – isn’t possible.

Sam Cairns says the only advice she can offer is to assume that IT will change in two years. Beyond that, “the best you can do is to make sure you have enough power points”.

“There are lots of exciting digital projects happening in museum learning, but the thing about technology is that is shouldn’t be about end product,” she adds. “It’s about enabling better learning.”



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