«Introduction Museums and similar institutions spend a great deal of time, money and effort developing exhibits that facilitate visitor learning. ...»
Museums Actively Researching Visitor Experiences and Learning
(MARVEL): a methodological study
Museums and similar institutions spend a great deal of time, money and effort developing
exhibits that facilitate visitor learning. Learning outcomes are core business for most
museums. Contemporary management practice recognises that performance is stronger when
outcomes are measured, yet the typical performance measures used by museums are numeric
counts of visitors, exhibitions, events, tickets sold or levels of ‘satisfaction’. An effective, meaningful and economical way of measuring learning is needed. The development of a meaningful procedure for uncovering learning allows for the gathering of information that will have enormous impact on the quality of future exhibitions.
The MARVEL project (Museums Actively Researching Visitor Experiences and Learning) was a collaboration between the University of Technology Sydney, the Australian Museum, the Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney and Environmetrics Pty Ltd. The project team members are Janette Griffin, Lynda Kelly, Janelle Hatherly and Gillian Savage respectively from each of the above organisations. The aim was to develop a set of ‘tools’ for measuring aspects of learning in any cultural institution, and that could be used by staff who may have little evaluation experience. Three tools were developed and tested to meet this need. This paper reports on the development and initial testing of these tools. A following paper will include field trials of the tools and some tentative data gathered from five museums.
The tools that we developed can be used separately or collectively to:
• assess the degree of learning that takes place in an exhibition/museum Museums Actively Researching Visitor Experiences and Learning (MARVEL): a methodological study by Janette Griffin, Lynda Kelly, Gillian Savage, Janelle Hatherly © Open Museum Journal Volume 7, November 2005
• understand the nature of learning that takes place in an exhibition/museum
• establish benchmarks for learning outcomes
• compare the learning outcomes for different exhibitions
• share data between institutions and make comparisons with them.
The aspects of the project that are reported in this paper include determining each tool’s effectiveness in uncovering the extent and nature of learning which each of the individual strategies reveals; developing the most appropriate and effective use of each strategy;
investigating the relationships between the learning revealed by combinations of the strategies, and determining the appropriate application of sets of combinations.
Background Cultural institutions are an important part of the broader learning and knowledge society, playing a key role in lifelong learning and educational leisure. Museums areinformal learning settings where learning is intrinsically motivated and proceeds through curiosity, observation and activity (Ramey-Gassert, Walberg and Walberg, 1994). Museums present a distinct context for learning, often described as free-choice learning environments and are visited by a broad range of people (Falk and Dierking, 2000). Museums have the opportunity to shape identities: through access to objects, knowledge and information, visitors can see themselves and their culture reflected in ways that encourage new connections, meaning making and learning (Silverman, 1995; Weil, 1997; Bradburne, 1998; Griffin, D., 1998; Hein, 1998; Carr, 1999; Pitman, 1999, Kelly, 2001). However, museums are finding themselves competing with other leisure and learning experiences in an increasingly complex world (Mintz, 1994; Falk and Dierking, 2000; Kelly, 2000a) where people engage in highly memorable, rich experiences in a range of contexts.
Museums Actively Researching Visitor Experiences and Learning (MARVEL): a methodological study by Janette Griffin, Lynda Kelly, Gillian Savage, Janelle Hatherly © Open Museum Journal Volume 7, November 2005 The emphasis in museums and similar institutions, such as zoos, aquaria and botanical gardens, has shifted from displaying curiosities and precious objects for their own sake to an emphasis on helping visitors learn about issues related to their collections. Museums are increasingly positioning themselves in the market as places for rich learning experiences, with mission statements that highlight their key role in public learning and education. Coupled with this, research has shown that when asked why they visit places such as museums visitors often say ‘to learn’ (Hood, 1995; Kelly, 2000a, 2001).
There have been a range of studies looking at people learning in informal contexts, including museums (Crane, Nicholson, Chen and Bitgood, 1994; Falk and Dierking, 1995;
Hein, 1998). Research has been undertaken with specific visitor segments such as families (Borun, Chambers, and Cleghorn, 1996; Moussouri, 1997), school children (Birney, 1988;
Griffin, 1998) and adult museum visitors (McManus, 1993; Silverman, 1995; Falk and Dierking, 1997; Falk, Moussouri, and Coulson, 1998). Most of these, however, have been either one-off studies or focussed on particular exhibitions. In Australia there is a growing body of museum visitor learning research (eg. Anderson et.al. 2002; Griffin, 1996, 1998;
Rennie and McClafferty, 2002; Kelly, 2000b; Kelly et. al.2004; Piscitelli and Weier, 2002).
Learning in Museums In the development of learning theory several models and theories have been proposed, with two – constructivism and sociocultural theory – being particularly relevant for museums.
Constructivism is a theory of learning that focuses on the learner and the personal meanings they make based on their prior experience, knowledge and interests. Jeffrey-Clay (1998) pointed out that ‘Constructivist theory holds that prior knowledge is of primary importance.
Rather than learners being empty vessels into which information can be poured, they come … with a wealth of knowledge already organised. It is upon this knowledge structure that Museums Actively Researching Visitor Experiences and Learning (MARVEL): a methodological study by Janette Griffin, Lynda Kelly, Gillian Savage, Janelle Hatherly © Open Museum Journal Volume 7, November 2005 learners hang new information, creating new links to their pre-existing knowledge. To learn meaningfully, a person must integrate new knowledge into his or her conceptual structure’ (p.3).
George Hein (1998) proposed a set of nine learning principles that emerged from
• learning is an active process of constructing meaning from sensory input
• as they learn, people learn about the process of learning, as well as content
• learning happens in the mind
• language and learning are inextricably linked
• learning is a social activity and happens with others
• learning is contextual, in that we learn in relation to what we already know, our beliefs and our prejudices
• previous knowledge impacts on new learning
• learning happens over long periods of time, through repeated exposure and thought
• motivation is essential for learning.
The second theory, sociocultural theory, is based on the work of Lev Vygotsky who first proposed that learning was a socially mediated process where learners, in his case adults and children, were jointly responsible for their learning (Matusov & Rogoff, 1995; Vygotsky, 1978). In a sociocultural model learning is shaped by the context, culture, and artifacts in the learning situation.
Schauble, Leinhardt and Martin (1997) argue for a sociocultural approach as an appropriate theoretical framework in museum learning research as it accounts for meanings made within a social context, rather than facts learned, focusing on the interplay between ‘… individuals acting in social contexts and the mediators – including tools, talk, activity structures, signs and symbol systems – that are employed in those contexts’ (Schauble et al, Museums Actively Researching Visitor Experiences and Learning (MARVEL): a methodological study by Janette Griffin, Lynda Kelly, Gillian Savage, Janelle Hatherly © Open Museum Journal Volume 7, November 2005 1997, p.4). In a similar vein, Matusov & Rogoff (1995) stated that: ‘Museums, as educational institutions, provide opportunities for people to bridge different sociocultural practices and, through this process, to bridge different institutions and communities’ (p.101).
Based on these views a definition of museum learning is offered as follows:
‘[museum] learning is a dynamic process dependant on the individual and their environment within a social context that focuses on some change. … Ultimately, museum learning is about “changing as a person”: how well a visit inspires and stimulates people into wanting to know more, as well as changing how they see themselves and their world both as an individual and as part of a community.’ (Kelly & Gordon, 2002, p.161) It has been widely recognised that museum learning research needs to be theoretically based, undertaken across a range of institutions, collaborative within the industry and the wider research community, creative and innovative with wide ranging methods, as well as related to other learning experiences (Falk and Dierking, 1995, 2000; Schauble, Leinhardt and Martin, 1997; Hein, 1998). However, capturing and measuring the nature, depth and breadth of museum learning is problematic. Evaluation of the success of museums in achieving their learning goals is proving a challenge. In museums, visitors choose their experiences, ideas may not necessarily be met in any particular sequence, opportunities for learning may be fragmentary and unstructured. The informal nature of the setting means that museum professionals cannot determine the specific content to which learners are exposed (Griffin, 1999).
Uncovering Learning in Museums – the strategies used in MARVEL The purpose of this project then was to investigate methods by which we could uncover learning in a museum. The partners in this project had each previously developed strategies that attempted to determine aspects of visitor learning. However we recognised that individually these tools capture only some aspects of the learning that may be taking place.
This project was designed to firstly develop and investigate the range of strategies, then to Museums Actively Researching Visitor Experiences and Learning (MARVEL): a methodological study by Janette Griffin, Lynda Kelly, Gillian Savage, Janelle Hatherly © Open Museum Journal Volume 7, November 2005 look at correlations between results from different tests, the feasibility of their use in different contexts and their comparative effectiveness.
Based on earlier findings, our research team believe that it is more valuable to look at how and whether visitors are learning, rather than only looking at what they have learned.
We understand that learning by people of any age is not simple and cannot be measured using simple tools. Each person will gather different information and understandings from the same exhibit. Each person’s learning incorporates many experiences beyond the museum visit.
The methods we used reflect this view. Further the development of the tools was based on the
understanding that learning:
• involves action (mental and/or physical), implying a degree of choice and ownership
• is stimulated when new experiences or phenomena are met
• occurs when new and existing ideas can be linked or when new ideas fill a gap
• involves arousing curiosity
• is supported by social interaction
• is invariably linked to enjoyment
• involves emotional engagement.
So we needed to be innovative in how we discovered whether museum visitors were learning from museum exhibitions. We chose to approach this using three perspectives,
which are described below:
• visitors’ understanding of the big ideas of an exhibit
• visitors’ personal declarations of their learning, and
• visitors’ observable behaviours that indicated learning was happening.
Museums Actively Researching Visitor Experiences and Learning (MARVEL): a methodological study by Janette Griffin, Lynda Kelly, Gillian Savage, Janelle Hatherly © Open Museum Journal Volume 7, November 2005 Looking for understanding of the BIG IDEAS In a series of exit surveys two strategies were trialled that use open-ended techniques to determine the overall learning within exhibitions. First, narrative methods (Kelly, 2000b) involving brief stories presented as newspaper articles shown to visitors as they leave an exhibit and a range of open-ended questions, allow for free range discussions revealing the level of understanding of ideas from exhibitions as well as links made to other concepts and contexts. Further tests of this procedure were developed. Second, two open ended questions
were used in a survey to directly tap visitors’ views of the important ideas. These were:
• What do you think are the main messages that the …exhibition is trying to communicate?
• Were there some things that you found particularly interesting in the ….exhibition, that you might tell other people about?
Personal Declarations of visitors’ own views of their Learning:
The Modes of Learning Inventory (MOLI) was developed by Environmetrics Pty Ltd (Gillian Savage) to provide a structured interview protocol for uncovering visitors’ own impressions and expressions of their learning from a particular exhibit. This tool provides a measure of whether the visitors themselves consider that they have been learning and how they have been learning, rather than what was learned. MOLI measures the process of learning rather than the content. The Index uses a series of statements each with a five point Likert scale from Strongly disagree to Strongly agree.
The MOLI statements:
• I discovered things that I didn’t know
• I learnt more about things I already knew
• I remembered things I hadn’t thought of for a while Museums Actively Researching Visitor Experiences and Learning (MARVEL): a methodological study by Janette Griffin, Lynda Kelly, Gillian Savage, Janelle Hatherly © Open Museum Journal Volume 7, November 2005
• I shared some of my knowledge with other people