Museums and Education: Purpose, Pedagogy and Performance was a presentation given by Professor Eilean Hooper-Greenhill to the MA students, PhD students and academics of the Museum Studies Department, University of Leicester, on Monday 26 March 2007.
Before I begin, a declaration of interest: since I have been working with RCMG now for over four years this will not be an objective review as I was involved with the research projects upon which this research is based. For me it is a privilege to be able to say that and to have worked closely with Eilean. This review will therefore focus on providing a brief overview of the different elements of Eilean's presentation; the context for the "Post museum", the context for the research carried out by RCMG and the conclusions that Eilean has been able to draw from this research and her vast experience of museum education.
Drawing on her new book of the same title, Eilean's presentation brought together four years of research looking at the impact of learning in museums by the Research Centre for Museums and Galleries (RCMG), and set within the context of how museums and their relationship with education has changed. From the repressive and authoritarian "modern museum" shaped by "solid modernity" we move into the twenty-first century, where museums are becoming more flexible and creative, re-imagining themselves as policy initiatives challenge what museums are about and "tired philosophies" are over-turned. Eilean termed those museums most influenced by the fluidity of postmodernity the "Post Museum"; such museums were defined as having a more sophisticated approach to audiences and culture, an acute awareness of the power and potential for learning, and how learning shapes individual (and therefore social) identity. The reciprocal relationship between learning and identity is still only just beginning to be understood but in terms of museums there is a huge responsibility inferred because of the part they can play in the "process of becoming."
This is a relationship that the UK government under New Labour appears keen to embrace and since 1997 government funding has ensured that learning is at the centre of the museum's role. Museums however have been asked to compete for funding, to fight for their survival essentially against a philosophy that demands that their social value be demonstrated through the impacts of such funding - against a Treasury which only understands numbers and statistics - something which museums have struggled against and still struggle. This is not only unique to museums in the UK... however despite the struggle, as Eilean points out, evaluation gives 'visibility' to what museums are capable of and it becomes 'knowable' which brings with it a degree of power. This raises new possibilities for the continued development of the "post museum".
The research undertaken by RCMG looked at the impact of two funding streams on participant's learning; the MLA's Renaissance programme which has created centres of excellence, or Hubs, in the 9 English regions and the DCMS/DfES Strategic Commissioning programme which has created partnerships between the national and regional museums. Three evaluations considered the vast range of learning activities offered through these programmes, taking the position that learning is broad, continuous, as 'natural as breathing' and is therefore common to everyone. It is also important to note that learning is not always intentional or educational. The evaluations all used the Generic Learning Outcomes to 'measure' the impact of learning, not only in a numeric sense (although this was important for giving the Treasury impacts it could understand) but in terms of understanding how individuals learn in the museum (the outcomes) and how that translates into a wider impact for society. I will not go into detail about the findings from the research but instead will give a brief overview of Eilean's conclusions that she has been able to draw from the work.
Through synthesis of the evidence of impact gathered from the research and appropriate educational theory, Eilean is able to describe the character of learning in the museum as embodied, immersive, holistic, performative and individualised (this is very important considering the government's drive to personalise public services!). There is plenty of evidence to show that museums engage both emotions and intelligence, enabling pupils (and adults) to be exposed to experiences that they otherwise might not have had. When this is done through workshops of carefully selected tasks, it can create the 'optimum conditions for learning'. Participants are fully immersed in the experience; the safe context of the museum and being with peers and significant adults (e.g. teachers) enables often alarming or challenging issues to be explored; the whole body can be engaged, not only 'seeing' is privileged. Ideally individuals should be encouraged to be open and receptive, this 'floodlight' approach to learning as described by Claxton enabling them to cope with the new experiences on offer. This in turn develops resiliance and resourcefulness in learning, strengthening an individual's own self-image as a learner. Museums can clearly aid in this process.
The implications for museums are broad and I think exciting. As well as making a contribution to government agendas, museums can help to build resourceful learners that can use culture for their own purposes, namely as a resource to help build their own sense of self. Such evidence can dispel out-dated 19th century notions that 'learning at a glance' - which museums have privileged - is possible or even desirable; Eilean argues that this pedagogic style may be the reason why certain types of adults (highly educated) tend to favour museums despite the attempts to broaden audiences. It changes the ethics of the museum 'curriculum' - as we are more aware of how the stories that museums tell impact on how we feel about ourselves, museums must take responsibility for ensuring that people are brought together and made to feel included both nationally and globally. Furthermore the purpose of education has changed. Instead of mastering a body of knowledge designed to fit the individual into their status in life, twenty-first century learning privileges change, resiliance, self-realisation, learning how to learn and strong self-identities. As identified by Eilean, museums are where such learning can take place. It only remains now for museums to take these opportunities and develop the "post museum" for the future.
For me it was very a very inspiring presentation, the first time (ish) I had seen the material pulled together into a compelling narrative and presented in such an engaging manner by Eilean, which filled me with hope that museums might finally cast off some of the mis-conceptions that plague them; that they are dull, worthy and filled with glass cases. Granted we were looking at evidence largely from structured workshops for school and community groups but even so the huge amounts of children and adults that the Renaissance and DCMS/ DfES programmes have reached will hopefully begin to have impacts in ways which have been anticipated by this research. That museums are places for everyone and everyone can benefit from them in terms of learning about themselves and the wider world.
The Attic (a name which commemorates our first physical location) is, first and foremost, a site for the research students of the School of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester: a virtual community which aims to include all students, be they campus-based and full-time, or distance-learning and overseas. But we welcome contributions from students of museum studies - and allied subject areas - from outside the School and from around the world. Here you will find a lot of serious stuff, like exhibition and research seminar reviews, conference alerts and calls for papers, but there's also some 'fluff'; the things that inspire, distract and keep us going. After all, while we may be dead serious academic types, we're human too.