Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills: Informal Adult Learning - Shaping the Way Ahead

June 2008

1. The Museums Association (MA) is an independent membership organisation representing museums and galleries in the UK and people who work for them. The Association has over 5,000 individual members and 600 institutional members.

These institutional members encompass around 1500 museums in the UK ranging from the largest government-funded national museums to small volunteer-run charitable trust museums. Formed in 1889, it is a charity, receiving no regular government funding, which seeks to inform, represent and develop museums and people who work for them in order that they may provide a better service to society and the public.

2. Museums offer significant opportunities for informal adult learning and could do more, with different kinds of encouragement and support. We were pleased to see museums' contribution acknowledged in the consultation document. Our comments below outline some of the changes we believe could enable museums to do more to support the DIUS agenda.

General comments

3. Museums' greatest strength in terms of their contribution to informal adult learning is that they offer a range of ways in for learners. Museums provide demonstrations, talks, drop-in onsite activities as well as unlimited self-directed learning opportunities. Their provision suits many different learning styles and offers opportunities for hands-on experiences and for developing creativity.

Museums are also one of the most important venues for intergenerational learning activity and many informal adult learners are initially drawn into museums through visits with children or grandchildren. Some people who have had off-putting experiences of formal learning are more relaxed and confident in a museum setting. Museums can both be providers of informal learning opportunities and neutral venues for other providers to make use of.

4. Museums can contribute at many different stages of the learning journey for adult learners: a casual visit can provide the spark that inspires someone to pursue an interest further; the support of guides and education staff can deepen existing knowledge or interest; some learners may want to pursue their interest as far as undertaking independent research using museum collections.

5. Museums recognise the importance of adult learning and most make some sort of provision for adult learners. A few offer really innovative and inspiring opportunities. However, it is probably fair to say that recent policy initiatives and funding streams have encouraged museums to emphasise their formal learning services, and in particular their service to schools. We believe that museums' potential as providers of informal adult learning could be further developed with the right kinds of support and encouragement from funders and from local and central government.

Responses to consultation questions

Understanding and improving on current provision

6. Supporting self-organised adult learning. Museums often work closely with groups of informal adult learners, such as local history and archaeology societies or enthusiasts. For example, museum staff provide talks at society meetings, often provide meeting spaces for groups and answer large numbers of enquiries from individual members of the public.

Active 'Friends' groups associated with museums also foster learning opportunities, with members organising their own lecture series, conferences and away days. Recent policy developments, including the MA's own Collections for the Future initiative have encouraged museums to open up their stored collections and information about them to audiences, and the results, such as tours of closed stores and online resources, have often been of benefit to informal learners.

New technology is opening up new channels of communication between museums and informal adult learners. Museums are increasingly making detailed information about their collections available online, and informal learners can now access the kind of catalogue resources that might previously have been reserved for professional specialists. Some museums are also using technology to allow members of the public to contribute their knowledge and expertise to their catalogues. This kind of dialogue with experts and others who share a specialist interest can be very motivating for informal learners.

7. To extend their provision in these areas, museums need the support of funders. There also needs to be recognition of the importance of this kind of work in funding arrangements and performance measures.

8. Connectivity between learning episodes. There is a need for museums to be better at signposting the opportunities available and linking them in to major national events, TV series, etc. Museums with archaeological collections have made some progress on this with links through the Portable Antiquities scheme and Channel 4's Time Team.

Time Team's Big Dig is a good example, where museums were involved directly in a media initiative, encouraging adults (and children) to get involved in local archaeology. Better use of web-based directories is probably one answer, relevant government departments should be encouraged to promote a joined-up approach to web-based information resources they are responsible for, directly or indirectly.

9. Developing a culture of volunteering. Museums work with large numbers of volunteers and a significant number of small museums are entirely volunteer run. The consultation document notes that volunteers are important in the provision of learning, but it is also worth stressing that volunteering is an important learning opportunity for the volunteers themselves.

Volunteering can be a way of learning new skills and building confidence. For example, a current project at the Manchester Museum and Imperial War Museum North, In Touch, is working in partnership with local colleges to offer training in a variety of museum roles, to people from disadvantaged groups. Participants have reported that the programme has had a major impact on their self-confidence and motivation to progress into further learning and employment.

10. Fostering innovative approaches to adult learning. Narrow target-driven performance measures in the cultural sector have in the past perhaps discouraged museums from developing their offer to informal adult learners, since this provision has not always been recognised in funding agreements.

With the McMaster review placing a new emphasis on encouraging excellence, this culture seems to be changing within DCMS. The challenge for museums and their funders will be to find ways to recognise the value of experiences for learners that can be life-changing but hard to quantify.

The Government contribution

11. Improving government support for informal learning. For museums perhaps the most helpful measure would be a clear signal from government that informal adult learning is a priority and that museums have a role to play in delivering it.

In recent years the government-funded programme Renaissance in the Regions has focused on school-age education initiatives and resources in museums, although MLA is currently reviewing this programme. Recognition of the importance of adult learning within Local Area Agreements would also help to prioritise this issue.

12. Better use of resources. Few museums, particularly outside London, are regularly open in an evening, because of funding constraints. Regular evening opening would enable more informal adult learners to access museum resources. It might be possible to fund this kind of evening opening in partnership with formal learning providers if museums provided venues for formal adult learning at the same time.

DIUS-funded informal adult learning

13. Partnership working. Most of the questions in this section are beyond our remit. But we would like to comment that there is clearly more scope for museums to work in partnership with other adult learning providers. Good partnerships do exist, but these tend to have been based on the initiative of individuals.

Mainstream providers need to be given a steer that innovative approaches that involve working with alternative providers such as museums can bring rich rewards. Museums also have huge potential to be stepping stones, sparking an interest on a topic then pointing people in the right direction to take their interest further.

Ensuring equality of access to learning

14. Barriers to learning. Clearly the financial barrier mentioned in the consultation document is only one of many. An equally, if not more, significant barrier is one of perception and self-exclusion: "it's not for me". Museums have traditionally suffered from a perception of exclusivity and museums have been actively seeking to address this in recent years, with some success.

Interestingly, informal adult learning programmes have been one of the most important means by which museums have sought to bring in new and different audiences: people who might not consider an independent museum visit may be attracted to an event or programme with a learning element if it is formulated and marketed effectively. We believe that museums have a wealth of good practice experience to share with other providers in this respect.

Broadcasting and technology

15. As noted above, a key role of new technology is to open up collections-related knowledge and to allow the possibility of two-way communication between museum experts and museum users. However, in practice most museums lack anything like adequate online collections-related information and the information that is available is often not tailored to meet the needs of learners.

The Online Learning Project, a project by a consortium of national museums, funded by an Invest to Save award, will report later this year. The purpose of the project is to enable learners to make better use of the content already on ten national museum and gallery websites better used. The project will focus on using existing databases, articles and functionality to encourage users to engage critically and creatively with museum and gallery collections.

For lifelong learners the project will focus on Creative Journeys that show how people have made use of museum and gallery websites in their own creative activity. Examples of this will be shown and people will be encouraged to record their own creative journeys online. We believe this could offer important lessons for museums and others in the cultural sector developing online collections-based learning resources.


16. Museums already make important contributions to informal adult learning, through volunteering opportunities and new technology, as well as more traditional gallery-based talks and activities. Museums are also places that support many amateur local history and archaeology societies. They could do more with some targeted support and partnership working, and particularly if contributing to informal adult learning was seen by government and other funders as a key part of their role.

For more information or comment, please contact:

Nikola Burdon
Policy Officer
Museums Association
24 Calvin Street
E1 6NW