Learning spaces in museums and galleries - Museums Association

Learning spaces in museums and galleries

Benefiting from best practice across the cultural sector
More than a decade after it was published in 2004, Space for Learning: a Handbook for Education Spaces in Museums, Heritage Sites and Discovery Centres is getting an update this autumn.

The guidance was the result of collaboration between the Clore Duffield Foundation and nine other organisations in the arts, cultural, environmental and heritage sectors.

Due to be published on 13 October, the updated version of the guidance will feature case studies and feedback from learning professionals who took part in a survey earlier this year.

Consultant Sam Cairns, who is delivering the publication on behalf of Clore Duffield Foundation, a grant-making charity, the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF), the Royal Institute of British Architects and other partners, says that much of the advice in the 2004 version remains relevant today.

But some areas, such as the use of digital learning tools, needed updating to reflect advances in technology as well as new and emerging education materials.

The printed version of the document will have advice and checklists, as well as quotes and comments from museum professionals.

But the bulk of the guidance will be online, which Cairns says will allow people to search for content depending on their organisation’s size and their budget as well as whether they are creating a new space or want to adapt an existing one.

“The digital version will have more detailed information and case studies,” she adds. “This means we can also update the guidance and add new case studies in the future.”

Jo Reilly, the head of participation and learning at the HLF, says that there has been a huge improvement in the quality of learning spaces since the 2004 guidance was published.

“One of our concerns back then was that spaces were too small, too dark and poorly fitted out – basically, not fit for purpose,” she says.

"Since the guidance was first published, we’ve seen a shift towards lighter, brighter learning spaces in more prominent positions in museums and galleries. There are now many examples of high-quality spaces that have all kinds of learners’ needs built into their design.”

Museums now have a better appreciation and understanding of the impact that the physical environment can have on learning. The aim of the new guidance is to collate examples of best practice and innovation, but also to remind the sector that this area of work is constantly evolving.

This is partly due to new and emerging learning theories, many of which place a strong emphasis on the learning environment. But audiences and their expectations of museums also shift over time, and learning spaces must adapt to ensure they meet as many learners’ needs as possible.

Museums and galleries are increasingly looking outside the sector for inspiration for learning spaces. For example, the Whitworth in Manchester, which reopened earlier this year following a £15m redevelopment, now has a Clore learning studio that is influenced by artist studios, higher education learning spaces and even allotments.

Esme Ward, the head of learning and engagement at the University of Manchester’s Whitworth Gallery and Manchester Museum, says: “We asked where effective learning spaces were rather than just assumed they were already in museums and galleries.”

The updated Space for Learning guidance will include cases studies from natural heritage sites for the first time, which aims to provide some interesting insights into different approaches to learning.

“There is so much that can be learned from colleagues in the visual arts, museums, heritage organisations and the natural world,” says Jane Sillis, the director of engage, which is one of the partners behind the new guidance. “But it can be difficult for education professionals to get out and see spaces, so having a place to share ongoing case studies is vital.”

An understanding of different learning styles is also increasingly shaping the design of new learning-cum-gallery spaces. In London, the Wellcome Collection’s Reading Room is a welcoming space where people can browse artworks and books, play board games and quizzes, or simply relax on one of the many sofas.

Earlier this month Manchester Museum opened a new informal learning space called the Study, which combines collections research, art exhibitions and cutting-edge technology.

Occupying the museum’s top floor, the space incorporates a gallery, a study centre for in-depth research and an area for "imagining, exploring and thinking". The aim is to provide the tools and inspiration to allow people to pursue their own research or learning.

“The Study is really informed by our understanding of how visitors, especially adults, engage with our collections,” Ward says. “People have a real thirst to find out more about the world we live in, and what better place to do that than a museum.”


Space for Learning: A new handbook for creating inspirational learning spaces (2015)

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