Published: 3-01-2012, 11:52

Museums as Sites of Adult Learning

Hundreds of millions of people throughout the world visit museums, galleries, zoos, aquariums, nature and science centers, and historic sites. This article discusses museums as sites of adult learning. These institutions are increasingly defined by their ability to act as dynamic agents of cultural dissemination and have the capacity to expand the range of learning opportunities for adults. Adult learning theory and research in the area of museum education transform the visitor or user’s experiences into learning opportunities that occur in relation to sociocultural surroundings and stimulate active and reflexive learning. Through both free-choice and organized nonformal learning visits, adults have the opportunity to experience the unknown, revisit the familiar, stimulate their curiosity, and challenge their existing beliefs.

The first section of the article explores the educational role of museums by reviewing the variety of cultural institutions defined as museums, as well as the educational missions and purposes of these organizations. The next section discusses the intersection of adult education and museum education theories and how these influence adult learning in museums. The final section reviews adult learning in museums, and attention is paid to the concepts of nonformal and free-choice learning.

Educational Role of Museums

As lifelong learning increasingly becomes more important in society, greater demands have been placed on museums to offer learning opportunities for visitors throughout their lives. The significance of museums as sites of adult learning is reflected in the definitions and missions of these institutions. Museums were once merely private collections held by aristocrats and universities; however, today, they constitute much more. The field of museum studies focuses on an array of institutions including, but not limited to, historic homes and sites, science and technology centers, aquariums, zoos, and botanical gardens, as well as the traditional art, history, and natural history museums. In general, the term museum includes both institutions with collections of exhibits, and locations without their own collections or permanent exhibitions, such as ancient remains or historic sites. These institutions function as a place of memory, where heritage is conserved, collections are maintained, and the best possible conditions are created for visitors to experience these collections. The International Council of Museums (ICOM) defines a museum as a permanent, nonprofit institution in the service to society and the development of society. It is open to the public, and works to acquire, conserve, research, communicate, and exhibit, for purposes of study, education, and enjoyment, the material evidence of people and their environment. The American Association of Museums (AAM) offers another definition based on seven characteristics. Museums must:

  1. be a legally organized not-for-profit institution or part of a not-for-profit institution or government entity; 
  2. be essentially educational in nature; 
  3. have a formally stated mission; 
  4. have one full-time paid professional staff member who has museum knowledge and experience and is delegated authority and allocated financial resources sufficient to operate the museum effectively; 
  5. present regularly scheduled programs and exhibits that use and interpret objects for the public according to accepted standards; 
  6. have a formal and appropriate program of documentation, care, and use of collections and/or tangible objects; and 
  7. have a formal and appropriate program of presentation and maintenance of exhibits. 

Definitions also exist to clarify the role of education in museums. The AAM’s Task Force on Museum Education, in their 1992 landmark report, offers a broad notion of museum education, which sees museums as fostering visitors’ ability to be a productive member of a pluralistic society, and contributing to solutions to address the challenges of global citizenship. Hooper-Greenhill (1994) stresses the educational role of museums as central to a museum’s mission and defines museum education as the creation of open relationships between museums visitors in order to increase enjoyment, motivation, and knowledge. Falk and Dierking (1995) offer further clarification by suggesting that museums provide visitors with accessible content and facilitate connections between contrasting facts and ideas. Moreover, they stress the museum’s affect on visitor values and attitudes, while also promoting culture, community, and familial identity. Lastly, museum education is foundational to encouraging a visitor’s confidence, interest, curiosity, and motivation to gain new knowledge, as well as to affect a visitor’s thinking and worldview.

The depth and breadth of these definitions have been recognized by museum professionals and, in order to meet these demands, many museums employ educational staff or curators whose role is to direct the education, learning, and outreach functions of the museum. Several times, this is achieved within a museum education department. A museum’s education department frequently works in the development of signage, exhibits, texts, community outreach, visitor services, guided and self-guided tours, visitor workshops, lectures, seminars, and speakers’ bureaus. Additionally, these departments may include volunteers, guides, interpreters, and docents who work with the public to devise and deliver purposeful programming and free-choice learning experiences.

Depending on the size, expertise, and mission of the institution, museum programming may be comprised of lectures, guided tours, field trips, gallery demonstrations, costumed interpretations, teacher and public workshops, seminars and symposia, film series, classes, theater, the loaning of objects, and the development and dissemination of teaching kits and packs related to exhibitions and collections. Moreover, innovative and creative programming has emerged, including learning opportunities geared to personal and cultural development, community outreach and activism, programs for special needs visitors, collaborative programs between museums and other organizations, such as universities, libraries, and other cultural institutions, as well as virtual and mobile museums. With the advent of new forms of technology and the Internet, this last type of programming is increasing in popularity since it provides anytime, anywhere learning for visitors.

Museums have moved beyond static homepages to the creation of extensive databases for research purposes and sites and portals that provide the public with detailed content, resources, and educational material. Examples of how museums are utilizing technology for adult learning include virtual exhibitions that provide information about a thematic area determined by the museum, interactive sites that offer educational activities to support learning, and on-demand exhibits that let the user control the subjects being viewed. These multimedia forms expand the learning experience and educational programming beyond the doors of the museum.

In addition to the growing role of technology in shaping adult learning in museums, institutions have also emerged to specifically draw attention to and address the social, political, and cultural conditions around the world. Such museums extend adult learning to include the promotion of humanitarian and democratic values. For example, the International Coalition of Historic Site Museums of Conscience is a network of historic site museums throughout the world presenting and interpreting a variety of historic issues, events, and people. Its mission is to assist the public in making links between the history of the site and its contemporary implications. For example, the network includes the District Six Museum in South Africa whose mission entails ensuring the memory of forced removals in South Africa and brings visitors’ attention to confronting all forms of social oppression. By focusing on social and cultural conditions, sites such as this strive to not only facilitate adult learning, but also empower visitors to challenge their understanding of history and the human condition.

Using research and scholarship to inform practice, museums are increasingly positioning themselves as places for rich learning experiences. With mission statements that highlight their key role in public learning and education, an array of physical and virtual learning opportunities, and the increase in addressing sociopolitical and cultural conditions throughout the world, the growth of adult learning in museums is evident. From highly structured programs that are identified, designed, and delivered by the institution to less formal opportunities, including incidental or free-choice learning, museums are taking a more sociocultural perspective that emphasizes visitor experiences in relation to the objects, museum context, and society.

Educational Theories

Museums have utilized research and theory in order to intentionally design and facilitate learning opportunities for adults. By introducing people to cultural, historical, and social artifacts, as well as nature and science, museums have the ability to support visitors as they become engaged with novel ideas. To accomplish this, museum educators draw from traditional educational theory, adult education principles, and museums studies research to enhance the learning experience for adult visitors. A variety of empirical and theoretical literature for examining the learning needs of adults in museums is available and the two bodies of research parallel one another, emphasizing the underlying need for a deeper understanding and commitment to adult museum visitors.

Theoretical approaches to museum education have a foundation in the broader field of education. For example, some museums support a constructivist approach to learning in their institution. Constructivism is a theory of learning focusing on the learner and the personal meanings they make based on their prior experience, knowledge, and interests. Museums utilizing a constructivist approach argue that visitors learn the most when knowledge is constructed mentally, in contexts that are physically, socially, and intellectually accessible. Thus, the needs and motivation of the visitor guide the structure of the exhibits and are essential when museum educators conceive of and facilitate learning opportunities. Other institutions utilize a sociocultural approach in museum learning research. Museums using this theoretical framework recognize that visitors’ meanings are made within a social context, rather than from facts learned. The sociocultural approach to learning in museums focuses on the interplay between individuals acting in social contexts and mediators such as tools, talk, activity structures, signs, and symbol systems found in cultural institutions.

These theoretical perspectives influence a number of museum education models. Falk and Dierking (2000) argue for an interactive experience model based on the concept of free-choice learning. Similar to situated learning, which supports encouraging the use of knowledge and strategies in a variety of settings, the Interactive Experience Model addresses the personal, social, and physical contexts of learning in museums. The personal context recognizes that: motivation and emotional cues initiate learning; personal interest facilitates learning; knowledge is constructed from prior knowledge and experience; and learning is expressed in an appropriate context. The second context, sociocultural, emphasizes learning as an individual as well as a group endeavor and the physical context addresses the notion that learning is dependent on a person’s ability to place prior experiences within the context of their physical setting. These three contexts combine in an attempt to explain how, why, where, what, and with whom people learn in museums. This model aids in framing museum services, and highlights the role of educational theory in the process of exhibit development, interpretation, and programming.

Additionally, a focus on the role of prior experiences and learning is central to both the museum education and adult education fields. Experience influences adults’ approaches to learning, their ability to integrate new information, and the ways in which they build concepts around new knowledge. Museums researchers are emphasizing the same ideas by addressing the prior experiences of visitors and how those experiences establish what visitors will do, talk about, and take away from their visits. Thus, museum educators are facilitating learning opportunities that recognize and underscore the role of emotions, memories, background, and personal understandings in the process of assigning reference and meaning to museum content.

The significance of understanding the adult visitor is emphasized by Sachatello-Sawyer et al. (2002), who categorized adult learning in museums to include six dimensions: life-changing experiences, transformed perspectives, changes in attitude, increased appreciation, exploration of relationships, and acquisition of knowledge. These levels serve to explain the forms of personal change, long-term change resulting from the learning, and the integration of new learning. They also found that adult learners in museums fell into four distinct categories: knowledge seekers, socializers, skill builders, and museum lovers. Both the forms of adult learning and the categorization of adult learners in museums mirror the work of Mezirow (1991) andHoule (1961) in the adult education literature. Mezirow describes four processes of learning: elaborating an existing point of view, establishing a new point of view, transforming one’s point of view, and, lastly, becoming aware and critically reflecting on our generalized bias of how we view groups other than our own; and Houle’s typology of adult learners includes: (1) the goal oriented, (2) the activity oriented, and (3) the learning oriented.

While terminology used in the two fields may differ, this section demonstrates that the underlying theoretical frames and the parallels in how both fields characterize learning and adult learners are similar. Regardless of the scholarship, the significance of lifelong learning in museums is receiving considerable attention from researchers and is providing opportunities for furthering our understanding of adult learning theory. Moreover, the research in the two fields, as well as from visitor studies, interpretation research, and leisure and recreation studies is informing museum practice, thus increasing the likelihood of presenting museums as sites of adult learning experiences.

Adult Learning in Museums

In general, adult learners frequent museums as visitors or users of museum services that include the availability of reference and resources, cultural and community programming, and virtual offerings. These learners are diverse and create a challenge for institutions seeking ways to provide adults with education and learning opportunities. Due to their broader life experiences, established identity, abstract thinking ability, understanding of the world they live in, and unique learning expectations, it is necessary to specifically address adult learning in museums. First, the motivations and agendas that adults take to museums are important in influencing the way they experience a visit, as well as their behavior and learning. Those facilitating educational opportunities in museums take into account such motivations in order to create engaging visits. Several factors influence the decision of whether or not to visit a museum, including an opportunity to socially interact with others and with family, the sense that they are doing something worthwhile, the challenge of new experiences, feeling comfortable with their surroundings, having the chance to actively participate, and having an opportunity to learn. The combination of these factors requires museums to develop programming that incorporates the breadth and depth of visitor characteristics ranging from purposeful learning to incidental learning resulting from a leisure visit.

Although learning is not a deliberate intention of many museum visitors, they often seek out or are unconsciously drawn into an experience that encompasses learning. When visiting museums, adults tend to look for opportunities to learn more about themselves, their culture, and their heritage, and gravitate to those places where they feel most comfortable. Overall, research in the area of visitor motivation suggests that adult visitors are not only motivated to learn, but also perceive museums as sources of important information, are willing to commit to learning activities, and find such endeavors satisfying, all of which create both opportunities and challenges for the institutions.

Regardless of the motivation or intention, visits by adults to museums present both social and educational opportunities and create the possibility of purposeful and incidental learning that is the focus of much study in the fields of museum and adult education. Museums are distinct learning environments, and as such have received considerable attention by scholars. Within adult education, museums are categorized as nonformal education, while in museum studies, these learning environments are often referred to in relation to free-choice learning. Both terms provide a means for framing adult learning experiences in museums and offer similar perspectives on the role of the learner and the resources necessary to support the learning process.

Nonformal Education

Nonformal education is characterized as intentional and organized with the purpose of promoting learning to enhance an adult’s quality of life (Heimlich, 1993). Ideally, it is learner centered, maintains a balance of power between the learner and the facilitator, is present-time focused, and is geared to meeting localized needs. In this same vein, learning in a nonformal context is often distinguished by activities outside the formal learning setting, with voluntary participation as opposed to mandatory participation.Within a taxonomy of adult learning, nonformal learning is identified by learners holding the objectives for learning with the means controlled by the educator or organization. In this way, nonformal education creates learning events in museums that can expand the range of opportunities for adults with practical applications to an individual’s profession, personal interests, and community. Owing to the unique learning environment and resources museums offer, these institutions are constructing nonformal learning offerings ranging from senior citizen programs, programs for law enforcement officers, and restoration and preservation opportunities, to training for volunteers interested in working as docents, interpreters, and oral historians. One group of learners garnering significant attention is classroom teachers. Museums create learning opportunities for classroom teachers through inservice, continuing education and intensive, residential summer institutes. These experiences are designed and initiated by museums to provide educators with opportunities to explore museum resources, co-create curriculum with peers, and experience museum exhibits under the direction of museum staff and museum consultants specializing in k-12 curriculum and instruction.

Nonformal programming serves not only organized groups, but also those seeking personal development and educational opportunities, and individuals serving as volunteers for museums. Adults involved in museum programs are often seeking out lifelong learning opportunities and look for ways to bring together their personal interests, professional expertise, and social consciousness. Programs like the Smithsonian’s Resident Associate Program are one example of museums providing a range of experiences to adult learners including structured lectures, tours, and performances that offer cultural and educational opportunities for lifelong learners.

Despite the fact that nonformal learning includes museum-derived programming, nonformal education also provides for more self-directed and informal learning opportunities. For instance, many museums are emphasizing active involvement of visitors through the use of engaging questions, involved discussion, and co-constructed workshop methods. Such experiences encourage adults to handle objects, investigate the meanings and relationships between objects and exhibits, and address their own reactions to the museum content. Although museums serve the role of nonformal education for adult learners, a good deal of visitors are informal users that include individuals, friends, and families visiting museums casually as tourists or for entertainment and social interaction.These informal experiences are at the root of another formof learning in museums, free-choice.

Free-Choice Learning

Free-choice learning (Falk and Dierking, 2000) is a nonlinear process that looks to visitors to bring their own awareness and interests to the museum experience in order to create a variety of learning outcomes. That being said, such learning opportunities are not completely unstructured since the nature and design of the exhibits form some structure to the learning experience. It is this choice and control over the learning that is central. In freechoice learning, the learner is intrinsically motivated by their desire to discover more about the world, gain information, and enhance their current understanding. More specifically, adults tend to engage in free-choice learning in museums because of one or more factors. The first factor is friendships and organizational relationships including the social connections established in civic associations, schools, and community and religious groups. These interactions strengthen a commitment to developing social networks through invitations to take part in the museumexperience.The second is the visitor’s family who communicates information about learning opportunities or emphasizes an interest in museums. The last factor is an adult’s business and professional connections. These relationships can create the expectation of visiting a museum for professional networking, or to gain new knowledge to transfer to the work environment.

Museums are responding to free-choice learning by layering the experiences. By doing so, museums are able to present visitors with smaller segments that are more easily processed and integrated into prior experiences and learning. This limits visitors’ sense of being overwhelmed and provides a chance for visitors to linger on specifics that are of most interest. Technology is also aiding museums in their facilitation of free-choice learning. Radio-frequency identification (RFID) is a method of automatic identification that relies on storing and remotely retrieving data using RFID tags. Using RFID, the Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, CA, began experimenting with Tech- Tags that work to link one exhibit to another within the museum, to personalize and customize the experience, and extend the museum experience beyond the visit. An RFID chip is embedded in a visitor bracelet enabling visitors to use their bracelet to activate exhibits as well as create a customized Internet record of the visit that can be explored after the leaving the museum.

In general, visitors in a free-choice environment decide whether to visit a museum, what will be viewed or done at the museum, and for how long. Essentially, free-choice is closely linked with educational leisure in that the experience is learner centered through exploration, connections to prior experiences, and control of the learning environment. Although museums are a significant source of free-choice learning for adults, it is important to note that people engage in free-choice learning through other venues including libraries, parks, radio, television and film, print media, and the Internet.When these sources are partnered with the learning opportunities of museums, what is produced is the opportunity for a robust and multidimensional form of understanding. Entities such as the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) have used such partnerships to develop free-choice learning opportunities that bring together print media, technology, and museums to feature content and exhibits in relation to a PBS series.

Whether it is nonformal education or free-choice learning, the outcomes for adults’ experiences in museums are diverse. Participation in museum-related activities contributes to the shaping of families, and other social groups, as well as expanding the personal and professional perspectives of individual adult visitors. By increasing knowledge and understanding, developing new skills and abilities, inspiring new learning and change, and stimulating lifelong learning, museums not only impact an adult’s knowledge, but, often, also their attitudes, values, and beliefs.


Today, adult education stresses self-direction, critical reflection, experiential learning, learning to learn, distance learning, and collaborative learning. The same elements can also be associatedwith adult learning in museums, as is evident in this article. Museums as sites of adult learning are stimulating and offer a place where ideas originating from the media or peers can be tested, confirmed, or modified. Museums also help visitors reformulate old pieces of understanding that have lost relevance or meaning. By purposefully taking part in educational activities in museums and engaging in free-choice learning, adults have the opportunity to share in conversations, discussions, debates, and social interaction, all of which are foundational to the work of museums and the expanding role of lifelong learning in society.

See also: Informal Learning: A Contested Concept.

R S Grenier, University of Connecticut, Storrs, CT, USA

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