Understanding museum learning from the visitor's perspective

Lynda Kelly's doctoral thesis investigated the question: What are the interrelationships between adult visitors' views of learning and their learning experiences at a museum?

Many museums around the world are reviewing the ways they are thinking about visitors and learning. Current theories of learning focus on the meaning individuals make based on their experiences -- alone, within a social context and as part of a community. A critical aspect in better understanding the process of learning for individuals is to find out how people view themselves as learners across the rich array of available formal and informal learning experiences. Research has shown that when asked why they visit museums people often say "to learn" but there has been little exploration into what this means. What do museum visitors think learning is? How do visitors view themselves as learners within the context of a museum visit and does this change during and after their visit?

The research question investigated in this doctoral study was What are the interrelationships between adult visitors' views of learning and their learning experiences at a museum? A key focus of the study was on how adults describe learning, the place of learning in their lives and where museums are situated. Other areas examined included the relationship between learning, education and entertainment, as well as the roles visitors play during a museum visit. The framework of learning identity was used to characterise how individuals describes themselves as learners within a sociocultural context, including their future views of learning and the roles learning plays in their lives.

The study was undertaken in two parts - Stage One investigated individuals' personal philosophies and views about learning, and Stage Two explored how a museum exhibition experience provided insights into visitors' learning identities.

It was found that participants in the study describe learning in very rich and detailed ways, yet there were also a number of common ideas that emerged. It is proposed that museum learning can be framed under six interrelated categories - person, purpose, process, people, place and product - called the 6P model of museum learning. The literature review showed that visitors learn a great deal from museums across a diverse range of content areas and at many different levels. However, the method used in this study also revealed that visitors could learn more about the concept of learning as well as their own learning processes - likes, dislikes, preferred strategies - if they are encouraged to think about themselves as a learner before they engage with an exhibition.

This thesis is available online here. Please contact me if you use this work as I'm curious if anyone finds it useful...


Lynda Kelly
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