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  • Writer's pictureErin Salthouse

Types of Museum Education

When I say I love museum education many people have many, many interpretations of what that means. Most think of Informal Education of Informal Learning. Tony Jeffs and Mark Smith claim that informal Education is responsive and spontaneous and “works through conversation, and the exploration and enlargement of experience.” Dr. Sarah Eaton claims that Informal education “is never organized” and that there is “no curriculum.” This could apply to visitors who wander through museums without a plan and encounter information by chance. But this is not the case for the museum education philosophies in any of the museums I have worked at!

Instead, Non-formal or Out of School Learning is a better match for what museum educators do. Gina Kousticka describes it this way: “Non-formal learning is also intentional but typically provided outside formal settings (e.g. school, university). It very rarely leads to certification, but it most often has some kind of learning objectives or outcomes. Most museums’ learning programmes and events, including outreach and exhibitions fall into the non-formal learning category, as they have visitor outcomes and as, more often than not, participants expect to learn something.”

In my experience I have come across many different institutional teaching styles, which all fall within this definition of Non-formal learning. 

1. Demonstration or show. 

If you have ever been to a science center you have likely encountered a demo, and most zoos and aquaria will perform daily animal talks or shows. This is a scripted performance with the intention of engaging the audience while providing information and entertainment. It takes some acting skill and the coordination of a sound system, props, and a set to create a successful demonstration. For example, the Intrepid: Sea, Air, and Space Museum has multiple daily science demonstrations and live planetarium shows.

2. Historic Interpretation

This is usually where an educator is dressed in costume and represents an historic figure or describes the life of people from a particular place and time. The way this is done can vary greatly and the choices as to why a character may be in 1st or 3rd person are made with much consideration. For example the Tenement museum has educators interact with visitors as if they are the people they represent, and the visitors are also pretending to be from that time period, having just moved to New York and looking for work. However, at the Philipsburg Manor, educators are dressed in costume, refer to the real people who would have worked in the locations they are in, but describe the work and the lives of those people in the 3rd person. The educators are wearing costumes, but do not pretend to be from a different time. The 1st person method is more immersive, but the 3rd person has the advantage of being able to explain things in a modern way and to address difficult topics like slavery, without placing visitors in the emotional and ethical quarry of watching someone simulate being a slave, for example. 

3. Lecture.

This might be most familiar to the average person- a docent lecture tour. This is generally extremely detailed descriptions of the context and particular significance of an object or artwork, for example. Generally this type of education is targeted at adults, who sign up for the tour. This is also a great option for explaining complex timelines or a sequence of events, for example a battleground tour or artist’s work over time. Sometimes lecture style tours are converted to audio guides, but the benefit of the live guide is the possibility of asking for clarification.

4. Object-based Inquiry.

This concept is used frequently with school-aged learners, and takes a more flexible approach than Lecture and Demonstration or Show, however all forms have curriculum goals. The basic idea is that educators present an object or artifact to the learners and guide an exploration using questions, searching for answers, and finally answering questions that the learners ask. This style requires a lot of preparation over a wide range of information about an object, and often means the educator will not have the answer for a few questions ( ex. What year was this wrench built? How many times did this plane fly?). However the benefits of this exploration are that the learners are often more engaged, and they direct the conversation.

5. Workshop or experience. 

Often art making comes to mind when people think of a workshop, but this could include dressing up in historic costumes, playing an instrument, touching reproduction or education collection items, or testing an experiment. Often after an Object inquiry, school-aged education programs will incorporate a workshop or experience to help learners put ideas into practice and have a chance to create strong memory connections. Sometimes at science centers, childrens museums, or art museums, you may find a maker space which is entirely workshop or experience focused. While logistically this makes sense, there is something added by threshing wheat in the barn, or folding a paper plane next to the plane it is based on when that is possible.

6. Conversation with an expert.

This is akin to a grown-up show and tell or science fair. This might be an animal keeper, or a restoration expert, or a teen with a touch-object cart. Basically, the expert provides a few introductory statements about what they do and why and then allows a free form question and answer session with the visitors who may drop in or out at any time. Often the experts are positioned next to something eye-catching and visitors pass by, and stop if their curiosity is piqued.

7. Outreach

When out of school education goes back into school! (or libraries, community centers, etc.). This could be a pre-visit for a particular class, a school or library day for a larger group, or a sequential after school experience. Often touch objects and demonstrations come along with the educators to engage and entertain the students. I am not familiar with costumed interpreters or lecture style education happening off site, but it may happen. Another subcategory for outreach is distance education which uses technology like video calling to allow people to “visit” the museum with an educator who brings them on a tour and may use any of the above methods.

8. Camp 

Many museums have camps. Some are run by the museum, some are run by partner organizations. In my experience camp may either be chaotic or structured. I prefer the structured experience for both the comfort of the campers and counselors. This is generally heavy on the workshop/experience style of education with a few tours and typical camp songs and games thrown in.

Was there a style of museum education I left out?

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