Making space for learning - Museums Association

Making space for learning

Small things can make a big difference, says Sam Cairns
Sam Cairns
The most repeated piece of advice from all the people who have contributed case studies and guidance to the update of Space for Learning: a Handbook for Education Spaces in Museums, Heritage Sites and Discovery Centres is this: work out how much storage space you want and double it.

But of course there are many other pithy, helpful and clever ideas everyone has shared that will be in the new handbook and website from 13 October.

Put together by a consortium that includes the Clore Duffield Foundation, a grant-making charity, the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Group for Education in Museum and engage, the handbook is the compiled wisdom of our sector and the lessons learnt by people who have already made mistakes and fixed them.

Space for Learning should be a vital resource for those building or renovating a learning space.

But what you won't find in the new guidance is a list that tells you exactly what to build. Unfortunately, such a thing does not exist.

The reality is that every learning space needs to be a product of the museum it is part of. It needs to flow from an understanding of the approach to learning at your site and who the audiences are. There will be physical and financial constraints and each venue will have different priorities.

What the new handbook will do is give advice on the information you need to craft a brief and then how to work with architects and designers to get a learning space that meets your needs. It includes information about noise (external sounds should be no louder than 35-45 decibels); lighting (daylight helps people learn better); and minimum sizes (98m2 before fit out is adequate for most learning groups).

We all know that practical details are what make a good learning space. Museums need to consider things such as soundproofing of spaces, lunchrooms that work well for the numbers using them, and having enough toilets that are close to the learning space.  

This last point is important: the further away the toilets are from where the learning session is taking place, the more of the workshop children will potentially miss.

Many of the lessons from the first Space for Learning publication still stand, but what has changed is the advice around technology and digital.

Today, most visitors will have at least one smartphone in their group. In a few years, we can expect every child to have their own device with an internet browser.

Museum learning spaces no longer need to be planned with computers or tablets. Instead we need spaces with Wi-Fi and power points. We need to put in space for trunking (a method for a system to provide network access to multiple users) and assume that any equipment, such as projectors or screens, will be replaced by something else in a few years.

The one thing that will never change for learning spaces is the need for a sense of place. If a visitor landed in your learning space without having walked through your site, would they know where they were?

Crafting practical useable spaces that enable better learning and give our visitors a unique and powerful experience should be what learning spaces are all about.

And trust me on the storage.


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

Sam Cairns is the director at Sam Cairns Associates and is managing the new Space for Learning website and publication, which will be published on 13 October

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