What is museum learning?

Involving ourselves with our rich and diverse heritage in enriching and transformational experiences provides distinctive opportunities for learning. Museum learning can transform our lives and should be accessible, relevant and enjoyable to everyone.

The benefits of museum learning are now well-established through independent research. Such programmes have been shown to help social inclusion, deepen partnerships between schools and museums, and increase levels of pupil attainment. Additionally, museum learning has the power to “inspire civic engagement, leading to personal, social and community benefit, and to the growth of our creative economy”. (Get It: the Power of Cultural Learning, 2009)

The word “museum” itself is used as short-hand for a wide range of heritage and cultural organisations, including museums, libraries, archives, historic houses, archaeological sites, parks and gardens, industrial heritage sites and places of worship. To emphasise this wide range of organisations, the phrase “heritage learning” is often used. Indeed, embracing both heritage and arts, we use the phrase “cultural learning”.

Who are museum educators?

Museum educators come from a range of backgrounds such as science, history, teaching and art. Their unique interests, perspectives, ideas and experience help to enrich and diversify museum education and make it more vibrant, eclectic and innovative.

It is the passion and enthusiasm for sharing knowledge and experiences with others that defines and unifies museum educators.

What do museum educators do?

Museum educators work with people of all ages, abilities and backgrounds. They work with audiences such as early years, school and college students, families and older adults. They also work with audiences who may not normally engage with museums and their collections including disabled people, disaffected teenagers, young offenders or members of particular non-visiting communities.

They create a wide variety of learning opportunities for both those who visit and those that don’t – working with the latter is usually termed “outreach”.Museum educators’ activities are often focused on interesting artefacts from the museum’s collection or archive. Using real objects that students can touch brings history to life.

The activities of a museum educator may include:

  • talks, guided tours or workshops
  • creating resources such as activity packs for visitors or toolkits for teachers
  • object handling activities
  • marketing learning opportunities, by writing promotional literature, designing web pages or updating social media sites
  • collaborating with teachers to devise curriculum-related activities.

They may also be involved in a number of other activities, particularly in small organisations, including:

  • encouraging new visitors to the site by writing promotional literature
  • creating content for their organisation’s website and looking after social media such as Twitter
  • helping with the creation and development of exhibitions and supporting resources
  • visitor services and commercial activities writing funding bids.

Museum educators are constantly looking for new ways to develop their offer to schools and other audiences. Cross-curricular approaches using story telling or creative responses to collections can inspire and build confidence among audiences and learning staff.

GEM’s project, Sounding Out Your Heritage, worked with groups of older people living independently and in sheltered housing schemes and residential care homes. The project showed that museum learning activities help to decrease social isolation and exclusion, and highlighted the clear and positive link between learning and health.

A recent edition of GEM Case Studies featured a write-up of a project with a local school inspired by the Cawdor Vase, one of the great treasures of Sir John Soane’s Museum, which depicts the legendary founding of the Olympics. As a result of lessons learned from the project, the museum altered its plans for its capital works.

At a recent GEM conference held at Norwich Castle Museum, delegates were delighted to have the opportunity to get their hands on some technology from an earlier age.

How do museum educators evaluate what they do?

Museum educators evaluate their work to ensure that their programmes are relevant, engaging and actually achieving what they are supposed to. They use a variety of techniques such as feasibility studies and front-end, formative and summative evaluations. Additionally, museum educators are open to feedback, and provide plenty of opportunity for visitors to comment on what was delivered to gain invaluable insight into what worked well and what needs to be improved. Social media is used too, to develop strong relationships with past and potential visitors, from whose input they can further evaluate and develop their offerings.

Current developments in museum learning

Darren Henley’s 2012 review of cultural education stressed its value both in and out of the classroom. He emphasised that the interactive learning opportunities that heritage organisations offer can have wide-reaching benefits for young people in terms of knowledge, personal development and skill acquisition, as well as for society as a whole through an increased understanding of our common heritage.

Substantial cuts in the sector are having a significant impact on heritage education, as some key findings of GEM’s UK Heritage Education Today survey illustrate:

  • 39% of organisations have seen a reduction in education budgets and 14% have no education budget;
  • 40% of organisations have increased the number of volunteers delivering education work previously done by paid staff;
  • 79% of staff feel they are expected to do more work for the same or less money.
What next?

GEM (the Group for Education in Museums) champions excellence in heritage and cultural learning to improve the education, health and wellbeing of the general public – it’s the voice for heritage learning. Through our publications, events, networks and advocacy, GEM will continue to support heritage educators in light of this changing landscape, sharing best practice across the sector. By working together, we can ensure a robust and vibrant future for heritage, inspiring all learners, regardless of their age or background.

More information can be found on our website or please contact us on our email address.