This new edition of Learning from Museums reflects on the changes to the learning landscape over the past 20 years since the first edition was published. It looks in depth at changing attitudes to what learning is and how museums now fit in this broad arena.
The authors have organised the book to re-examine the three original learning dimensions of the personal, sociocultural and physical. The addition of time as a dimension of learning brings fresh conversations to see “learning from museums as part of a larger whole, to see museum learning as just one part of a whole learning ecology”.
These chapters ask important questions about how learning is affected and monitored, but for me the most captivating stream woven through the book was the big question of where we, as museums, sit in the learning ecosystem our visitors experience as part of their everyday lives.
As the authors state, “all learning is continuous, all learning is cumulative”. Under this belief, how do museums that engage potentially just the once with a visitor show the learning value of their programming? And are there ways to extend the time dimension of learning to follow our visitors home?
I agree with the authors when they say museums often still treat visitors entering exhibitions, programmes and websites as if they have no prior knowledge on the topics covered.
The conversation in the book acknowledges that most visitors are driven to museums because they know something and want to have that knowledge both reinforced and built on in a free-choice learning environment. They may also choose to build on this learning experience by watching a film or reading a book or talking to a friend. Each interaction adds knowledge and creates understanding.
Making sense of our world and of other people is a human driver, and visitors are all on journeys to make meaning of their prior knowledge and to fill in the gaps. The authors have explained this human driver beautifully and in accessible language alongside plenty of case studies to help link our own practice to real-life contemporary examples.
Museums have never, and will never, exist in a vacuum, but now, more than any other time in history, the majority of people have ready access to a range of ways to learn. We may not always call it a learning experience, but the authors challenge us to decide whether that is because we like to think of our programmes as being unique and somehow precious.
Museums are different to other experiences visitors can choose and the authors focus on our authenticity and trusted nature in various examples, but the narrative is clear: each person is unique, a composite of their life experiences, and we are a moment within that. Therefore “understanding and evaluating learning from museums requires a much longer view than is possible by just looking at visitors when they are within the museum”.
This book also challenges us to forget the old distinctions between formal and informal learning, and certainly the idea that learning is something only the education team does. Instead, they ask us to imagine learning as being no longer distinct from exhibition, marketing or commercial teams, each responsible for creating the whole learning arena that museum visitors enter and explore. This is what the book does best.
Chapter 13 asks the question: “Can you imagine a museum…” The questions posed in this edition challenged me to look again at what learning in a museum can and should be for our audiences. I recommend that this book should be read by every museum professional and we should all endeavour to rise to the challenges presented for interdepartmental working and shift the perception we have of visitors and their learning ecosystems.
Frances Jeens is the director of learning and engagement at the Jewish Museum London